John Shearer: Past Presidential Visits To Chattanooga

Monday, July 29, 2013 - by John Shearer

President Barack Obama’s visit to Chattanooga on Tuesday will mark the first visit by a sitting president since George W. Bush came to Erlanger hospital, the Trade Center, and Porker’s barbecue restaurant on Market Street on Feb. 21, 2007.

While a number of presidents have spent time in Chattanooga while either campaigning for the nation’s highest office or before or after they served as president, only about a third have actually come while the chief executive.

Before President Bush’s visit, the last time was apparently when his father, George Bush, came here on the re-election campaign trail in the fall of 1992. By then polls were apparently showing that he was trailing Bill Clinton or had his work cut out in defeating him, and he was forced to go on the attack.

I remember standing in a fenced off area by Lovell Field listening to his speech, and it seemed so out of character for a man who in the years after his presidency has presented himself as being kind, classy, sensitive and a genuine good guy.

What I also remember about that day -- besides the fact that my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, and other Republican candidates for state office offered brief warmup remarks related to the national election – was that someone was running around in a chicken outfit.

And I don’t think he was on his way to entertain at a Lookouts’ baseball game. He or his organization must have been making some kind of political statement.

Before that, I believe the last visit by a sitting president was in May 1987, when President Ronald Reagan spoke to high school graduates at the UTC Arena after dining at the UTC student center.

He was in his second term by then, and he did not have to worry about re-election. As a result, he made a very upbeat speech of the variety for which he was famous. I was covering the event for the Chattanooga News-Free Press at the time, and I remember realizing for the first time why they called him the Great Communicator.

Prior to President Reagan’s speech, the last presidential visit was apparently when Democrat Lyndon Johnson spoke at a large rally at Lovell Field shortly before his election in 1964.

Before then, the last sitting president to visit Chattanooga may have been Franklin D. Roosevelt. He came several times, perhaps while traveling to and from his vacation home in Warm Springs, Ga.

In 1943, he inspected the Women’s Army Corps unit at Chickamauga Battlefield and Barnhardt Circle at Fort Oglethorpe, while on Sept. 2, 1940, he dedicated the new Chickamauga Dam. And on Nov. 21, 1938, he inspected work on the dam.

That one may have been as memorable as his 1940 visit, as he traveled across the Market Street Bridge, and up Dallas Road, Old Dallas Road, Hixson Pike, and Access Road to the dam.

It was during a time much different from today, as schoolchildren and other interested onlookers watched him and waved to him as he passed. And at the dam, 2,200 workers were there to greet him.

On his return trip, he went to County Judge Will Cummings’ farm in Lookout Valley via South Broad Street and up to Point Park.

Like President Reagan, Mr. Roosevelt had some savvy communication skills and knew how to charm the Chattanoogans.

These earlier presidential travels to Chattanooga had a similar feeling of letting the chief executive get to see a little of the city and greet all the citizens before the site-specific visits of recent years came into vogue. Of course, the changes have been due largely to increased safety concerns of the president, as well as perhaps the philosophy of more recent years of keeping the president’s visit tied in a little more with his own party or constituency.

As an example of the very friendly visits of old, Warren G. Harding’s train briefly sat at Chattanooga’s Terminal Station (now the Chattanooga Choo-Choo) on Jan. 21, 1921, after he had been elected but before he was sworn into office. The word was that he would not get off the train while on his way to Florida for some rest and relaxation.

But when his train backed into the station, he was on the rear platform kindly greeting those who had come to see him out of curiosity.

President William Howard Taft had the same friendly tone when he was here for a longer stay during a goodwill tour on Nov. 11, 1911. He spoke from the west side of the now-razed Old Main building at the University of Chattanooga, toured Chickamauga Battlefield, attended a banquet at the Hotel Patten, and then spoke at the old City Auditorium at Georgia Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (then Ninth Street).

President Theodore Roosevelt had a similarly memorable two-day stop in Chattanooga in early September 1902. He led a local cavalry unit on horseback through Chickamauga Park, visited Missionary Ridge and Orchard Knob, and rode the Incline and walked to Point Park after turning down offers for a ride.

And he was just getting started. He then dined at the Lookout Inn, which later burned to the ground, and attended a service at the former First Baptist Church on Georgia Avenue before spending the night in his guarded hotel room.

The next day, he addressed a firemen’s group at the City Auditorium and on the County Courthouse lawn.

At all the stops, he was said to be quite cordial.

Civil War battlefields were evidently the attractions for presidents to see in those days, as President Benjamin Harrison was taken to Lookout Mountain on April 15, 1891. But for him, the experience brought back a challenging part of his past instead of providing a carefree moment of the present, as he said he had been encamped there during the war as a commander of an Indiana volunteer regiment.

Earlier presidents who came to Chattanooga while serving or after having been elected were James K. Polk, possibly Andrew Jackson and James Monroe.

For all of them, each visit was a unique experience for the Scenic City.


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