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Encounters with presidents in San Diego.
JFK got a special delivery, Clinton insisted on saying hello to everyone in sight, and Truman whizzed by in a flash.
VOSD users have seen several presidents, and their visits stuck in their memories for as long as 62 years. Here are their stories of local encounters with the men who ran the country, inspired by my earlier dispatch about President John Kennedy’s 1963 visit. And stay tuned at end of this article for a couple more president-related tales.
Clinton: Mr. Congeniality
Tom Hanscom, now director of public relations for Sharp HealthCare, was working as a spokesman for the Wild Animal Park in 1994 when it received a surprise visitor — President Bill Clinton.
The man was a consummate politician: as soon as he stepped out of the black-windowed Suburban, he started working the crowd, striding over to every keeper and gardener (and PR guy) within sight and pumping their hands in greeting.
As they were finally loading up onto the stakebed truck for their tour, Clinton told one of the Secret Service agents that he had to duck into a restroom “for a pee.” The Secret Service agent sighed, knowing that this would mean another ten or fifteen minutes of glad-handing before they could get on with the tour.
Sure enough, the President walked all through the administration office, shaking hands with people and saying hello (hopefully after washing his hands).
The good news, from a PR perspective, was that the delay gave us a chance to position our staff photographer in the East Africa exhibit ahead of the caravan. A great photo of the First Family feeding a giraffe ran in papers around the world the next day.
Clinton made an earlier visit to town in 1994 when he dropped by Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in the South Bay neighborhood of Paradise Hills to sign an education bill. Sherry Rednour, director of workforce development for the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, was there because her kids attended the school:
I was more excited than the kids. We were so hopeful in those days, and he was handsome and charming.
I remember I was too far back in the crowd to get close, so I took my children’s hands and pushed through the crowd until we were standing right in front of him. I may owe some apologies for stepping on some of the other kids.
He shook our hands, and all I can remember thinking is how blue his eyes were up close.
Truman: Zipping Through
President Harry Truman made his only visit to San Diego in 1948 during a campaign swing on the West Coast. He went on to win in an upset, and a photographer caught him waving the newspaper with the famously inaccurate headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Bob Hurd wrote me an e-mail with a memory of watching Truman’s motorcade go by:
I was attending Grant Elementary School in Mission Hills. All the kids were taken to the canyon rim next to the rear entrance of the campus so we could see President Truman’s motorcade traveling up (or was it down) Washington Street. Well, we looked and we saw some cars, but they were so far away we couldn’t see the president. I don’t even know why I remember. I guess it’s because that’s the closest I ever got to seeing a president, in or out of office.
Kennedy: The Drinks Are on Him
President John Kennedy made his 1963 visit to make a commencement speech at what is now San Diego State University. An estimated 250,000 people watched his motorcade go by.
“JFK may have arrived by air at Lindbergh Field, but he was flown by military helicopter to a parking lot near Balboa Park,” Edward Andrews wrote. “I watched him land and greet the throngs. He later headed south to get on Highway 163 (395, then) and continued his tour.
“It was a whole day off of school for this Crawford Senior; but months later, while in auto shop, we would hear of his passing.”
Meanwhile, Ruth Hayward got a close-up glimpse of Camelot from the offices of the General Dynamics scientific computing facility next to Lindbergh Field:
During Kennedy’s visit, the presidential plane (a Boeing 707) was parked about 70 feet from our building. One day I saw them load in a mattress and two cases of scotch.
The mattress/scotch incident happened while there were stories swirling about JFK’s extracurricular activities, including Marilyn Monroe. So we all asked ourselves if we were witnessing some history.
I asked Hayward if she’d thought about wandering over to the plane to join the fun. She answered with this (and yes, she did allow me to quote her): “I wasn’t his type — no money, no influence and especially no boobs.”
Bonus Presidential History Tidbits:
A Feisty Faceoff at the Sports Arena
Dave Stutz, now a retired deputy district attorney, was working as a special agent for the U.S. Treasury Department in the summer of 1968 when the Secret Service came calling. Congress had ordered that all major presidential and vice presidential candidates get protection, and the Secret Service had to scramble to recruit agents from other agencies to help out.
Stutz was recruited to be a driver for presidential and vice presidential candidates when they came to San Diego. For 10 days, he drove Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew around town as they stayed at Mission Bay’s Bahia Hotel during a post-GOP-convention confab.
It was the best gig in the world. Whenever you go to a restaurant, it’s tradition that they feed all the agents in shifts for free in the kitchen, anything you want. That’s the only time I’ve gotten lobster and filet mignon at Old Trieste in the kitchen for nothing.
Stutz especially remembers accompanying candidate George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who ran on a pro-war and anti-civil-rights platform.
He was a feisty little guy. We took him over to the Sports Arena for his big speech, and the anti-war people had put on wigs and suits so they looked like Ivy Leaguers. They came in and sat in the front row.
Then Wallace gets up to give a speech. They took off their wigs and suits, and now they’re long-haired hippies yelling about the war, and they’re 10 feet way. We’re having to hold him back because he wants to fight with one of them, he wanted to kick his ass.
One Angry San Diegan
While researching this story, I came across a compilation of letters from citizens to President Truman. It includes this memorably caustic 1948 letter from a San Diego woman named Erma J. Thomas about a White House expenditure for a porch:
No doubt you will never see this letter but I could not resist to tell you what I and hundreds of other citizens of this country think of your wild-hair idea of adding to the White House, especially at this time. Every day you scream yourself hoarse about saving food, help to save the peace, and then you go and spend unnecessarily. …
If the material used in the porch could have been used to build a veteran’s home, I know for a fact it would have brought you many more votes, after all they are the ones who fought to keep the White House as it was.
As far as we are concerned, the sooner you go back to the Missouri cornfields the better, that is about your speed of judgment. Why don’t you practice what you preach?
I suspect she was left off the invitation list when Truman came to town later that year.