Now that President Barack Obama has finished decrying figurative Washington gridlock while causing literal gridlock throughout the Inner Loop, it's time to take a look back at all the future, sitting, or past presidents to have visited Houston over the last 170 years.
Back in 1996, Betty T. Chapman wrote a similar article in the Houston Business Journal. By her count, 17 presidents have come to town during or after their terms of office, but I found one she overlooked. In 1849, future president Rutherford B. Hayes came here to improve his health and visit his distant relative Guy Bryan on his Brazoria County plantation. On March 17 Hayes wrote favorably of the town and its foremost hotel in his diary, calling Houston "a fine town on a muddy flat at junction of two bayous forming Buffalo Bayou. Academical style of architecture prevailing. Capitol House is a capital house.” (While here, Hayes dined "with Baker and his pleasant family," visited a man named Tom Harrison, and played chess with a Mr. Blunt. )
Hayes had already visited Austin, which he called an "inconsiderable village" with "large expectations." There were "not more than one or two passable buildings in the city," he went on, and added that the town was "full of discharged 'Rangers,' officers and soldiers of the United States army, gamblers, and others. Costumes of every variety—Indian, Mexican, Christian, civil, military, and mixed. All armed to the teeth. Fierce whiskers, gaming, and drinking very abounding in all quarters."
Sounds better than South By Southwest...
Anyway, Ulysses S. Grant was the next one-time occupant of the Oval Office to come to town. In 1880, four years after the second of his two scandal-plagued terms ended, Grant was given a hero's welcome. Chapman reported that 5,000 well-wishers—a third of the city's population—greeted the former head of the Union army at his hotel. "His wildly popular reception was all the more remarkable since it took place in a former Confederate state. His name was not a welcome one in most households here during the Civil War," Chapman reported. "Nonetheless, the city felt it was being honored by this visit, and tried to enthusiastically outdo all other cities on the former president’s route."
Eleven years later Benjamin Harrison blazed through town on his way to and from Galveston. Though his appearance here was brief, it was a red-letter day for the city because he was the first sitting president to come to town. “Very few people living in Texas ever saw a president,” pointed out the Houston Daily Post.
In 1901 William McKinley orated to a full house at the Winnie Davis Auditorium, arriving there along streets bedecked in flowers for the festive occasion. “I consider our stop in Houston the most enjoyable so far on our trip,” McKinley is reported to have said. Sure, Bill. I bet you said that in Galveston, New Orleans, and Mobile too.
Hefty William Howard Taft blew into town during his two-month cross-country tour. The rotund head of state was criticized for cracking jokes during his speech from the Rice Hotel balcony rather than dealing with the issues, making him the first visiting president to be attacked in the local media. A local newspaper estimated the crowd as "ten acres of people."
Eleven thousand people turned out in 1911 to hear former President Teddy Roosevelt rant about “Civic Righteousness." After that it was another 35 years before a president came to town: Teddy's distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first Democratic president to visit.
FDR was greeted by a cacophony of car horns and factory whistles: the city suspended the noise ordinance for three minutes to mark the arrival of the First Train. (Or was it called Railcar One?) Roosevelt paraded down streets lined with well-wishers to the Ship Channel, where he caught a yacht and floated down Buffalo Bayou to the San Jacinto Battleground, where he gave a speech to 28,000 people. His remarks were also broadcast on each of Houston's three radio stations.
Truman was the last president to not visit here, and in 1960 Eisenhower became the first to arrive by plane. While Ike did get a ticker-tape parade down Main Street and thousands attended his speech at Rice, Chapman reported that many more watched it on TV. In her view, this was the first modern presidential visit in that it was more of a media event than a civic shindig.
JFK visited twice. There was the day before he died in 1963, and his 1962 visit that helped kick the Space Race into high gear. The silver-tongued devil's speech at Rice Stadium featured some of his finest oratory in a career full of lofty words:
"There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
Officials later estimated that about 586,000 people—half the population of Harris County at the time—saw the president either in his motorcade, at Rice, or at the Johnson Space Center, which had just broken ground.
Nixon, Carter, Ford Reagan, Clinton, and Obama have all visited while in office. As Chapman noted, the visits have become more "privatized," and as she puts it, "The days when a visit from the president of the United States was a civic occasion in which the whole community participated seem gone forever."