Obama’s Knoxville Visit

Here’s a coincidence. When I was naïve enough to think there might be a Metro Pulse still in publication in January, 2015, I made a note in my calendar to look into a column about President Obama’s traveling habits. For next week’s issue, concurrent with the halfway point of his second term in office, I was going to remark on the fact that our president had never visited Knoxville. Unless, driving down I-75 on some forgotten spring break–perhaps early in the Reagan administration–he pulled off for gas and cigarettes at a Weigel’s.

Who was the last U.S. president who spent six years in office without visiting Knoxville? No one since Truman, certainly. And I’m not sure about Harry. It could be much, much longer than that.

Until his Knoxville visit this week Obama was in the running for a peculiar distinction he could have shared only with four of our founding fathers. I’ll get at that in a moment.

First, I feel obliged to adjust a doubly misleading statement made this week by a local news source: “Because Tennessee isn’t a traditional battleground state, presidents haven’t made frequent visits.” That could be true if “traditional” applies only to the last 15 years, and if “presidents” applies only to Barack Obama.

Tennessee actually is a traditional battleground state. But its battleground-state status is now only traditional, as opposed to contemporary.

Beginning maybe with the Civil War, when it was literally a battleground state, Tennessee has been the political equivalent of a continental divide, with equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters going this way and that. For well over a century, Tennessee was the unpredictable wild card in the so-called Solid South. Few states have split their loyalties more evenly between the two parties in presidential elections, and for generations, Tennessee was a prize to win, frequently visited by candidates of both parties. Lest we forget, as recently as 1996, Tennessee favored the Democrat for president. That changed in 2000, perhaps forever. Ironically, it took Tennessee’s first presidential nominee in more than a century to turn the state against the Democrats. I’m still not sure how that happened. We liked Al Gore as our senator, twice, and as our vice president, twice. Just not as our president. We’re funny that way. Maybe it’s the memory of the last Tennessee president, Andrew Johnson. Maybe we figured a Tennessean headed to the White House is rising above his rearing.

In fact several presidents have made relatively frequent visits. By my count, before Obama’s prospective visit, 23 of our 44 presidents since George Washington have made visits to Knoxville at least long enough to make a speech. (Or 22 of 43, if you don’t count Cleveland twice.) Several of them came three or more times during their administrations.

That’s even though presidential travel was rare before the Civil War—and as far as I know, none of our founding fathers ever had a good look at Tennessee, even though it was here to look at. Some of those who did make it to Knoxville visited to campaign. Others, especially Republicans, have visited to raise money. That’s the other reason to visit. Republican presidents in particular have found it worth more than the Air Force One fuel to make a trip to Knoxville, to host $1,000 a plate dinners.

Democratic presidents have usually visited for other reasons.

Several presidents and presidential candidates of both parties have come to Knoxville expressly to voice their support for the Tennessee Valley Authority. That was part of the reason for Kennedy’s 1960 trip, and a bigger part of the reason for Reagan’s 1980 trip. Reagan had opposed TVA early in his political career, and wanted to come to let us know he’d changed his mind. TVA has been a talking point in most presidential visits to Knoxville, and no president has raised questions about TVA’s long-term viability since Eisenhower called it “creeping socialism.” That is, nobody until Obama—who is, unpredictably, the first president of either party in half a century who hasn’t paid proper homage to our sacred cow.

I can understand how newcomers might have the impression that presidential visits are scant here. No president’s been here in about a decade. I’m not sure there’s been a spell that long without a presidential visit since the Civil War.

It’s partly because W didn’t need another infusion of Knoxville cash after winning re-election in 2004 election. And Obama couldn’t have expected that campaigning in Tennessee would ever produce results. And maybe his questions about TVA might have made him shy about visiting TVA’s headquarters.

Both Presidents George Bush found it profitable to visit Knoxville several times. Ronald Reagan was here at least three times. I’ve seen four or five presidents in downtown Knoxville, myself. The first one I remember, I was a kindergartener waving a little flag with my Republican grandfather in 1964 as Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s parade went up Cumberland Avenue. I know he didn’t vote for LBJ, but my grandfather seemed very happy to see him in town. (Do Republican grandfathers still take their kids to parades for Democratic presidents?)

JFK was here, Ike was here. I still haven’t proven whether Harry Truman ever got his Knoxville ticket stamped. In the library I can’t find a record of a Truman visit. He was certainly a major figure here, in the era when Oak Ridge and TVA were federal projects under his supervision. He had motives to come here. It would be odd if he didn’t. I was once told by someone old enough to remember that Truman indeed did come here once, but details are elusive.

Franklin Roosevelt came to Knoxville at least three times. Lately there’s been some issue of mistaking old pictures of FDR’s parade down Gay Street in 1936 with his parade down Gay Street, in the same direction, in 1940. They look a lot alike.

However, just before FDR, the three Republican presidents of the 1920s are elusive. I’ve never run across any account of Harding or Coolidge ever darkening our door either during their campaigns or terms in office. Hoover made a car trip through East Tennessee, but a newspaper feature suggests he favored small towns, and may not have come to Knoxville proper.

However, for a long period during Knoxville’s boom years, in the half-century after the Civil War, most U.S. presidents came to Knoxville to give a speech to a big crowd, either during their term in office or in the four years before their first elections.

Wilson came here for a brief whistlestop visit at the Southern station, accompanied by his son in law, who was also his Secretary of the Treasury, former Knoxvillian William McAdoo.

Taft, our heftiest chief, gave a talk at the Hotel Atkin on Depot Street.

Teddy Roosevelt, who was very popular in Knoxville, spoke to roaring crowds here on several occasions. (The Knoxville area even supported TR in 1912, when he was running for a third term as the most liberal of the three candidates, touting, among many other progressive measures, a national health-care policy.)

Going farther back, McKinley came to Knoxville two or three times, before and during his presidency. Grover Cleveland, too, who visited during one of his famously non-sequential terms. Benjamin Harrison was downtown once, as was Rutherford B. Hayes, who gave a big public speech in the front of what’s now the Bijou Theatre on Gay Street.

For President Grant, we might be allowed to fudge a little bit. I don’t know he ever came here as sitting president, but Grant spent about a week in Knoxville about four years before his first election to the presidency. It’s true that he was not giving speeches here, as a politician would. He was a general of an occupying army. Still, it was mainly on Grant’s military record that he was elected, so maybe we can call that campaigning.

Obama’s avoidance of Knoxville until this week was beginning to suggest a new distinction.

Consider this. Since the Civil War, all the presidents who never came to Knoxville—that may include Garfield, Arthur, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and (maybe) Truman–were elected only once. Is a Knoxville visit necessary to a successful double-term administration?

I’m not ready to make that claim today. But here, at least, is a damnably vexing question for trivia night. Who was the last president to be elected, and re-elected, without ever visiting Knoxville?

If you guessed Abraham Lincoln, you score a swig of hard cider. He probably never set foot in East Tennessee, even though he had a lot of friends here, and even though his father had lived in Greene County for a while.

Of course, a Knoxville visit would have been inadvisable during most of Lincoln’s administration, because, for more than half of it, Knoxville was deep in enemy territory. Then, even under Union occupation, some disgruntled Confederate might well take a shot.

As was the case even in the Union capital. Lincoln didn’t get to serve much of his second term, just six weeks of it in fact. So that raises another question. Before Obama, who was the last president to be elected, re-elected, and serve more than two months of his second term, without ever seeing Gay Street?

It wasn’t Andrew Jackson, obviously. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, he was probably here dozens of times. Young Hickory kept a room here, in his circuit-judge days, felt comfortable enough here even to challenge local hero John Sevier to a duel in front of the courthouse.

No, the streak goes back further, to our founding fathers. None of them saw much of the nation they founded.

Consider Jefferson. He’s considered the symbolic Southern champion, but in his very long life, he never saw most of the South. He spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, spent years in Paris, but never saw Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans. Or Knoxville. He offered some advice to the founders of our university, but he never crossed our border. In his 83 years, he never ventured south or west of Virginia. Eleven states later formed the Confederacy, but Jefferson never saw more than one of them.

And he was actually better-traveled than some of our founding fathers. In his day, there was no expectation that a leader was obliged to actually visit all the states he governed. It wasn’t just that roads were bad. People just weren’t accustomed to political campaigning, and the flattery that comes with a visit.

He wasn’t the last president to serve two terms without a Knoxville visit. That distinction goes to James Monroe. His famous Doctrine was globally far-reaching, but he wasn’t.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all served two full elected terms, and none of them visited Knoxville. Since Monroe, who left office in 1825, every two-full-term president has Knoxville on his resume.

So, in visiting Knoxville this week, just before the halfway mark of his second term, President Obama maintains an obscure 190-year-old streak for the city of Knoxville.

At the same time, he spoils a presidential distinction he almost shared only with our founding fathers.

2 thoughts on “Obama’s Knoxville Visit

  1. RDanielProctor

    I believe that Monroe made a tour of the Deep South (Ga., Ala., Tenn., et al) about 1819. Don’t think he visited Knoxville, but he did travel, and by horseback at times.

  2. pvwright

    Mr. Obama does have a Knoxville connection. His great-great-great-great grandfather (and mine) Obadiah Wright was married in Knoxville in 1812. The bride was Malinda Jones, whose father was a Methodist minister in Knoxville and owned a farmstead where (or very close to where) Neyland stadium now stands.

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