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I Have Seen All the Presidents During My Lifetime

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Howard Davis
August 28, 2015

I have seen all the presidents in my lifetime. Growing up in Washington, D.C. and later living in Ohio were key. In 1942, when I was only a few months old, my mother took me to the dedication of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke. I feel sure that as a future political scientist, my baby eyes gazed upon FDR.

I saw Harry Truman twice. The first time was at the National Cathedral, on the occasion to honor Woodrow Wilson who was buried there. I was eight or 10 years old. Mother thought I should witness history, so she had Dad take me. We sat in the high gallery in the north transept. I remember looking down at the president and Dad explaining that the men hovering around him were Secret Service guards. The second time was after he retired. I was an undergraduate at Cornell and Truman came to give a speech. A friend and I slipped into a session he was having for about 40 graduate students. In the Q and A, a Japanese student asked him why he had dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He answered that it was to save lives, had an invasion been necessary.

I saw Eisenhower take the oath at his 1957 inauguration. I went downtown with a junior high friend. We stood in the crowd on the East Front. Afterward, we found a place on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the parade. We saw Ike and then Vice Present Nixon as they drove by. Earlier I had seen Eisenhower when he dedicated the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda in 1953.

When I was a teenager, I would take the streetcar downtown to sit in the galleries of the House and Senate. This was between 1956 to 1958. I remember being in the Senate Chamber, when a whisper went through the visitors: “That is Kennedy.” I also saw Lyndon Johnson there and Jerry Ford in the House.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson gave a speech on the White House South Lawn to student interns. In the presidential campaign that year, I worked for the National Young Democrats. Several staff went to the railway station at Alexandria on the morning of Oct. 6 for the Lady Bird Special, a train setting off to whistle stop through the South. LBJ rode from Union Station to Alexandria, where he made a speech from the rear platform and then returned to the White House. Mrs. Johnson was on the train for the whole 1,600-mile trip, ending in New Orleans. The president only flew into Atlanta and New Orleans for speeches. He was too unpopular in the small Southern towns, making it dangerous to ride for the whole trip.

My only opportunity to see Carter in person was the morning after his defeat in November 1980. I worked as a political appointee at the Interior Department and we were encouraged to go to the White House South Lawn to cheer Mr. and Mrs. Carter when they left for Camp David. The Marine One helicopter set down noisily and Carter waved at us with a strained smile.

On Jan. 20, I walked over to the west side of the Capitol for Reagan’s inauguration, standing on Maryland Avenue. I was living in southwest Washington so it was only a few blocks. As a professional actor, Reagan had appreciated that the West Front was a natural amphitheater. After he and George Bush were sworn in, I walked over to Pennsylvania Avenue for the parade. Before the parade began, Reagan drove by slowly standing up in a hole in the top of his limousine waving and smiling. A few minutes later Bush and Barbara drove by. A big school bus followed labeled “Bush Family.” The Bushes were famously numerous, whereas the Reagan family was small. As in 1956, I got two presidents at once.

Bill Clinton came to Toledo, where I was teaching at the university, two times during the 1992 campaign. The first was a rally outside Democratic Party headquarters downtown. A few weeks later Clinton spoke inside the University of Toledo Student Union and at length to a crowd gathered outside. I have a photo in my office taken by the university photographer. A half-hour later, as the campaign cavalcade prepared to depart for the next stop in Detroit, Clinton’s bus drove right outside my office window in Scott Hall. Clinton was standing in the front of the bus, next to the driver, waving and smiling.

After George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, I began to worry that my lifetime record would terminate. However, the president decided to visit Toledo with the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. On Sept. 6, 2001, the two presidents spoke on campus and I was there. This was only five days before the al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In February 2008, before the Ohio Democratic Primary election, I attended a rally in Savage Hall for Barack Obama. I had a good view and later saw him walk to his campaign bus. Hillary Clinton also came to campus to campaign before the primary. She spoke in the Student Union to a smaller crowd including me. (I had also seen her in Cleveland during the 2000 primaries campaigning for Bill.) To keep my record intact, I am rooting for Hillary to win in 2016.

Author: Davis teaches public administration at the University of Toledo. He has worked for EPA, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of the Interior in Washington. Email [email protected].

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