President Obama’s trip to Idaho last month was the first presidential visit I’ve missed. Even in red, red, Idaho, the tickets went faster than sliders at a tailgate party.
I did see Obama when he was here in 2008, though, so my streak is still intact. As a recent Statesman story on presidential streaks noted, every president since Lyndon Johnson has visited Idaho while in office. I’ve seen every one since Truman (though some were yet to become president and one had recently left office) here in Idaho, and all but one of them in Boise.
That’s one of the nice things about living here. Boise is big enough to rate occasional presidential visits but small enough that the chances of seeing the president – sometimes close enough to touch – are better than in larger places.
When Dwight Eisenhower gave a campaign speech on the Statehouse steps, half the town turned out. It was, of course, a much smaller town then. I sat on the steps, close enough to Ike that he’d notice if I tried to get his attention. In fact, he probably ignored the fact that I was desperately trying to do so. The price of a bottle of soda pop at our neighborhood grocery store had recently doubled from a nickel to a dime, and I thought the president should intervene and stop inflation in its tracks. I was five and knew everything.
A funny thing happened during that visit. Eisenhower spoke at a banquet in the old Hotel Boise. Five-year-olds weren’t invited, but I’ve since seen photos taken of him that night. He was wearing a name tag as big as a saucer. This was the man who had led the Allied invasion of Europe that defeated Hitler, a former five-star general, a national hero and a shoo-in for president. He was probably the most famous man in the world. And someone thought he needed a name tag?
Historians record that JFK spoke at the Jefferson-Jackson Day banquet in Boise the year before he was elected president. My recollection, however, is of him speaking on a blustery day on the tarmac at the airport. He wore a tan overcoat and the wind was whipping his bushy hair. Unlike Ike, he was young, dashing, charismatic. For the briefest of moments, Camelot was visiting Boise.
LBJ also spoke at the airport, wearing, as I recall, a cowboy hat. No Camelot that day.
Richard Nixon visited Boise as vice president, riding from the airport to downtown in a limousine. Those were more innocent times. Presidential assassinations were thought to be ancient history, and the windows were down so the VP could shake hands with bystanders lining the route. I was one of them. My staunch Republican parents were giddy with delight.
Gerald Ford was one of our more athletic presidents, once a starter for the University of Michigan football team. So it was fitting that I interviewed him on the golf course at Sun Valley. He was then our newest ex-president. He answered my questions courteously but laconically, rarely taking his eyes off of his game.
His golfing partner that day, baseball great Hank Aaron, was even tighter-lipped, confining his answers to a few words. Considering that a brash young reporter was interrupting their golf game, it was decent of them to have answered at all.
It’s not a coincidence that so many small-city encounters with presidents or presidential candidates happen at airports. They have just enough time for a brief speech and a few questions; then it’s off to the next town. Reporters are lucky to get in a single question. That was the case with me during two Ronald Reagan visits. But with his immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter, I got lucky.
Carter’s handlers had budgeted two-minute interviews for each of the local TV stations, but for some reason overlooked The Statesman. Wondering whether my editor would resort to thumb screws, the rack or the guillotine if I returned empty-handed, I watched with rising panic as Carter’s entourage headed for his plane and then, as if sent by God, returned.
“We have plane trouble,” his publicity minion said. “How would you like 40 minutes with the next president of the United States?”
So it was just Jimmy and me and a Statesman photographer in a private office. Carter couldn’t have been more pleasant. Or relaxed. The photo that ran on the next day’s front page was of the soon-to-be president kicking back in a reclining chair, his hands behind his head and his feet on a desk with a sign reading, “Don Duvall, airport manager.”
My encounter with one of his successors, George H.W. Bush, was even closer. He spoke at the Expo building at the fairgrounds, where his path to the podium took him through the waiting throng. He came close enough that his sleeve brushed my jacket as he passed. In those days I carried a pocketknife on my key ring. I was close enough to touch the president of the United States – did touch him, in fact – and I had a knife in my pocket. So much for security.
No such problems with Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Clinton didn’t come closer than 50 yards from the crowd as he crossed the tarmac at the airport, and security for Bush was so tight that a guard insisted on accompanying me to the men’s room at the Idaho Center. (No, I did not make that up.) Statesman staffers didn’t get anywhere near Bush that day. But I almost collided with his senior advisor, Karl Rove, as he headed for the presidential helicopter after the speech.
That brings us to Obama, and the question of who’ll follow him. Whoever it is, I’ll look forward to seeing him or her up close and personal – right here in Boise.
I promise to leave my pocketknife at home.