Presidential Visits: Days to Remember
Calvin Coolidge officiated as the virtual ribbon-cutter at the dedication of Los Angeles City Hall, pressing a telegraph key in the White House to light the beacon atop what was for years the city’s tallest building.
William McKinley also pressed a button from Washington that was supposed to drop a rock into the ocean to begin construction of the Los Angeles Harbor breakwater, but the mechanism failed and the stone had to be pushed by hand.
And when Benjamin Harrison visited Pasadena, controversy erupted over whether he drank a glass of wine. “He probably had a drink,” one historian said. “He probably had more than one.”
On Presidents Day, it seems appropriate to look back at how the nation’s chief executives have touched Southern California.
For a long time, Los Angeles was as likely a place for a presidential visit as Antarctica. In 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first sitting president to set foot in the dusty little town, but years would pass before the next presidential visit.
But with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad--and as Los Angeles became more populous and politically more important--presidents began coming more: for the sun, the money and the votes.
Presidential visits, once covered with front-page headlines like “Kennedy Caps Visit with Dip in Pacific,” have become so common that a recent visit by President Clinton--his 15th to the region--received only a few lines in the back pages.
“The center of power has shifted to the West and to Southern California in particular,” said noted historian Kevin Starr. “To win election to the presidency is, in some sense, to win Southern California. If you did one of those New Yorker cover maps of the nation today, you would place Los Angeles, Chicago and New York adjacent to Washington, D.C., just across the Potomac.”
Even presidents who never visited have contributed, in some often little-known or long forgotten way, to the city’s identity. Did you know that Beverly Hills got its name because its founder read about William Howard Taft’s visits to Beverly Farms, Mass.?
Presidents also played important roles in the region’s development--from Theodore Roosevelt’s clearing the way for construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to Herbert Hoover’s bringing water and power to the region by building the Colorado River dam named after him. Benjamin Harrison established the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve--known now as the Angeles National Forest.
The region also was the setting for some pivotal events in the lives of future and wannabe presidents.
Richard Nixon, the only native Californian to serve in the White House, delivered his famous Checkers speech at a TV studio in Hollywood. “It was very exciting,” said 100-year-old Billie Clevenger, telephone operator at the theater on the day of the speech. However, she said, the theater was more famous as the setting for Ralph Edwards’ “This Is Your Life.” Nixon gave his you-won’t-have-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore speech at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
The darkest moment in the city’s political history occurred outside the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, when presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
If you look hard enough you can discover that former Illinois governor and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had ties to Los Angeles. A sign outside a house near USC points to his birthplace.
In the same neighborhood, John F. Kennedy became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960 at the Sports Arena--the only time Los Angeles has hosted a party convention. A plaque at the Coliseum also notes that Kennedy delivered his acceptance speech there.
It took 30 years after California joined the union before a sitting president visited Los Angeles. The City Council was so excited that it appropriated $25 for a banquet to honor Hayes, the nation’s 19th president, when he announced that he would come to the former “Queen of the Cow Counties.”
Hayes, who traveled to L.A. by stagecoach and train, ended up spending only six hours here. But that was long enough for him to enjoy the eight-course feast.
When Harrison arrived in 1891, The Times reported, “10,000 voices sent forth a shout that could be heard several blocks from the depot . . . every bell on public buildings rang out [and] not a single drunken man was seen on the streets.”
During McKinley’s 1901 visit, the crowd surged so that one of the horses on the presidential carriage reared. “Women screamed, and an accident seemed imminent,” The Times reported, “when Chief of Police Elton dashed through the shouting crowd and seized the nervous animal’s bridle.”
Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Los Angeles in 1903--"unshaven and travel-dusty,” according to one account. (TR once called the city “Loss-AN-gee-lees.) He made a speech at Central Park (now Pershing Square) and visited President James A. Garfield’s widow, who lived in South Pasadena.
When the 355-pound Taft came to town in 1909, a giant chair was made for him. The chair can be found today at Occidental College. “It was used only once,” said Andrew Rolle, a research scholar at the Huntington Library. A similar chair--big enough for three people--can be found at Riverside’s Mission Inn, which Taft also visited.
When Woodrow Wilson came in 1919 during a tour to promote the League of Nations, his wife rode with him in a 10-mile parade through the city.
Warren G. Harding was on his way to Los Angeles when he died in San Francisco. Los Angeles probably was never a favorite city of his anyway, since local oil man Edward Doheny figured prominently in the Teapot Dome scandal that embittered Harding’s last days.
Hoover came near the end of his term in 1932, arriving by train and staying just two hours. He stopped to visit his son in Sierra Madre.
Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, arrived by train in 1935 and was driven around the Coliseum in Cecil B. DeMille’s shiny new car. He dedicated a statue of a Civilian Conservation Corps worker in Griffith Park and received an honorary degree from USC. In 1938, he caught a train here en route to San Diego for some fishing.
In 1942, during a secret tour of defense plants and military bases, FDR stopped at the Douglas Aircraft Co. plant in Long Beach. But the trip wasn’t reported in newspapers until a month later because of security concerns.
Harry S. Truman made two “whistle stops” in Los Angeles in 1948, and was greeted by 400 military aircraft in “one of the greatest mass-aviation spectacles seen above the city.” Among those welcoming him was a then-fellow Democrat--Ronald Reagan.
Truman apparently didn’t think much of the city, writing in his diary before coming back on a 1962 trip: “I’m up, dressed and packed up for the trip to the U.S. No. 1 ‘crackpot’ city.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, during the 1952 campaign, spoke to thousands of empty seats in the Coliseum. But that unhappy memory was erased when he returned two months later to a jam-packed rally at the Pan Pacific Auditorium and again in 1956 to a “hill-shaking” reception at the Hollywood Bowl.
In those days, politics was more entertaining. At the Hollywood Bowl rally, the crowd was treated to an hour-long warmup from entertainers George Murphy, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. During another Eisenhower visit, the city’s mayor rode at the head of a herd of 18 elephants as they paraded to City Hall.
Ike’s visits also were somewhat calamitous. In 1952, ticker tape thrown from Downtown windows somehow caught fire. And a muffler that had fallen off a car flipped into the air and just missed Eisenhower’s head. During the same trip, a Long Beach baby swallowed an “I Like Ike” button.
When JFK visited in 1962, his dip in the Pacific made front-page headlines. He strode out unannounced from his brother-in-law Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica beachfront home--and several women followed him into the surf fully clothed.
Lyndon B. Johnson came to Los Angeles about half a dozen times, but once he never even left Los Angeles International Airport, conducting a meeting aboard Air Force One.
When LBJ arrived in 1964, the City Council received telegrams protesting the “ridiculous expenditure of $4,000 in taxpayer money and city employees enjoying time off to attend the president’s political visit.” “Recommend an equal amount of money commensurate with employee time off for Sen. Goldwater’s visit,” wrote one irate citizen, referring to LBJ’s Republican foe, Barry Goldwater.
Nixon, of course, flew to his native California often, making his San Clemente retreat world famous as the Western White House.
During one of his trips to the Los Angeles region, Gerald R. Ford was photographed with a man dressed as a chicken, who ran past the Secret Service to hug the president.
Jimmy Carter was greeted by an unusual demonstration. When he attended a Century Plaza fund-raiser in 1977, thousands of protesters showed up representing a variety of causes. The largest group--about 2,500 farmers--drove a squadron of tractors and heavy farm equipment through the streets to protest a Carter policy. On another visit, Carter spent the night with an Eastside family and then jogged through city streets.
Reagan, the Hollywood immigrant from Illinois, has a long history of ties to Los Angeles dating to 1961, when the actor and rancher won his first political race--a seat on the Topanga Soil Conservation District. He still lives here, too.
George Bush visited the city after the 1992 riots. During one stay, he was in such a hurry to play tennis that when he walked out of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, he left behind his Secret Service bodyguards as well as the military aide who carries the top-secret codes needed to launch a nuclear attack.
President Clinton has visited the Los Angeles area more than a dozen times--and is due to return again later this month. He shot hoops with inner-city kids, toured the city after the Northridge earthquake and dropped by the House of Blues. And he arrived just in time last year to promise financially ailing Los Angeles County a $364-million bailout.
Times library research supervisor Cary Schneider and staff writer Steve Harvey contributed to this story.