Image: Tom Dougherty

The First Visit

Rutherford B. Hayes

October 11, 1880

The first president to travel west of the Rocky Mountains made his way to Washington Territory nine years before it achieved statehood. If Hayes’s decision to tour coal mines in Newcastle and Renton rings environmentally dubious today, his remarks to our citizenry seem downright prescient in the age of Amazon: “I...know of no reason why Seattle, with all her varied resources, and situated on one of the finest bodies of water in the world, should not be, figuratively speaking, in the very center of the commercial interests of the United States.”

The Mulligan Visit

William Howard Taft

October 1, 1909

“Taft Nearly Cause of Fist Fight” blared The Seattle Daily Times the morning after our most genial corpulent president arrived to tour the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The famously golf-loving Taft even wedged in a round at the Seattle Golf and Country Club in present-day Shoreline while delegates from the presidential welcome committees for Seattle and Tacoma argued over how long to let him walk the links in his golf sweater, straying from the official schedule’s departure time for T-Town. He also managed to get stung by a bee.

Taft came out west for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

The Secret Visit

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

September 22, 1942

A man hard at work on the Boeing wartime assembly line looked up and exclaimed, “Holy cats!” at the sight of President Roosevelt passing his table, during a visit so unexpected that workers hurriedly moved stacks of parts to clear the plant’s aisles for his open car. FDR also hit Fort Lewis and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and other military bases and defense plants on a two-week tour conducted under a media embargo due to wartime safety concerns. Today it’s hard to imagine the leader of the free world’s whereabouts remaining vague for half a month. But Pearl Harbor’s bombing the previous December spread fear of more attacks; Boeing even covered the roof of that South Seattle plant with faux houses, streets, and sidewalks as camouflage from potential bombers.

The Phoned-In Visit

John F. Kennedy

April 21, 1962

Boosters originally hoped JFK would launch Seattle’s seminal Century 21 Exposition in person, but instead the president picked up a blue phone and addressed stands of fairgoers from his vacation in Palm Beach: “May we open not only a great world’s fair, may we open an era of peace and understanding among all mankind. Let the fair begin!” He pressed an elaborate telegraph key (the same gold nugget–crusted Alaska marble number Taft used to kick off our Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition) and, 3,200 miles away, carillon bells rang, the Space Needle’s rotating restaurant began its slow spin, and the International Fountain sprang to life as 2,000 balloons floated toward the sky.

Image: Tom Dougherty

The Self-Deprecating Visit

Ronald Reagan

April 19, 1984

On a brief re-election campaign drop-in, President Reagan recalled for a crowd of Tacoma dockworkers his first visit in October 1940. The City of Destiny had spared no hoopla when it hosted a young studio contract player, not yet known as the Gipper, and the rest of the cast for the movie premiere of Tugboat Annie Sails Again, set in the Puget Sound. “They had fireboats out there, putting on a display and everything,” the Great Communicator told his audience of port workers in ’84. “And then that night, they saw the movie.” The next morning, Reagan joked, the cast couldn’t even flag down a cab. “Kind of a change in attitude, probably correct.”

The Waterside Visit

Bill Clinton

November 20, 1993

Blake Island, the state park complex eight miles west of downtown Seattle, usually hosts tourists and field trips for potlatch dinner theater. On this November afternoon (six years before he’d return for the protest-laden World Trade Organization conference) President Clinton turned it into a western Camp David of sorts, convening 13 Pacific Rim leaders for a massive trade summit at a conference table delivered by boat. The previous morning, he jogged around Green Lake with an advance runner who sped ahead to warn people on the path to keep their hands out of their pockets for security reasons.

Image: Tom Dougherty

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