By 10am, the morning was so sticky that President George W. Bush strode to his makeshift podium sans tie and suit jacket. His rolled-up sleeves only endeared him to the whooping crowd, men and women who built big yellow earthmovers at this Caterpillar plant an hour west of Chicago. Dubya blew in on August 10, 2005, for less than an hour to sign a transportation funding bill, doing a major political solid for speaker of the house Dennis Hastert, then the region’s congressman (as political references go, that one sure doesn’t age well).
I was one of two reporters from the local newspaper at the ceremony that day, though I was barely out of journalism school and my role was more about getting color quotes from Cat workers and random politically connected 11-year-olds in the crowd than any quality time with our nation’s leader. Still, I consider it my first IRL brush with the presidency.
The rest have been, well, at a distance. Or across the void that separates life and death, as in when I used my press pass to visit Ronald Reagan’s casket when it lay in state at the Capitol rotunda. In Seattle, I’ve sat in traffic while President Barack Obama’s motorcade makes its way downtown from Boeing Field.
Across our city’s history, presidential appearances have reflected the region’s evolution from remote curiosity to central player in various national agendas—Alaskan gold mining, World War II defense production, Pacific trade. In honor of Presidents’ Day, and our upcoming deluge of caucuses, "Great(ish) Moments in Seattle Presidential Visits," examines the many unexpected ways our city’s story intersects with that of our commanders in chief.
For a highly orchestrated event mostly built around a rarefied white guy, presidential visits have an uncommon power to unify. Half the workers I spoke to that sweaty day in Illinois turned out not because of President Bush in particular, but for the chance to witness, even briefly, the highest office in the land. In our current, even more sharply divided political climate? Notsomuch. But two centuries of presidential history offer a glimmer of perspective as we enter into this election year: If Seattle’s relationship with the presidency can weather bee stings, myriad protests, and the repeated ignominies of Warren G. Harding, surely there are brighter days ahead.