Hail To The Chiefs
Huge crowds lined Government Street to see the American president, an articulate, charismatic gentleman elected to lead his country out of a terrible economic crisis. No, Barack Obama has not been here yet, although he might drop by in 2010 to take up Gordon Campbell on his invite to the Olympic games. If Obama does, he will be in good company. Presidents have been to Victoria before, and under similar historical circumstances.
Back when ships were the principal means of long-distance travel, we here on British Columbia's coast often saw American presidents before Ottawa did. The first presidential visit to Canada was by Warren G. Harding in 1923, on his way back from Alaska on a national “Voyage of Understanding” to prop up his scandal-plagued administration: Harding landed at Campbell River and spent the day fishing, then steamed on to Vancouver and made a fatuous speech in Stanley Park. (Considered one of the worst presidents in history, a week later he died in San Francisco – poisoned, some say, by his long-suffering wife, or food he ate in B.C.)
The first president to actually visit Victoria was the great Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spent a few hours here on September 30, 1937. He didn’t visit Ottawa until 1943.
FDR arrived at Ogden Point aboard a destroyer, accompanied by his wife Eleanor and their grandchildren. “The President, sitting in front of the torpedo tubes amidship, wore a grey fedora hat and a black overcoat. He was smoking, and smiled cheerily,” the newspapers reported. They were diplomatic about his disability: “President Roosevelt was helped from his chair to the top of the gangplank, but walked down alone holding the sides.”
He travelled in an open car through downtown with lieutenant-governor Eric Hamber (left); armed Secret Service men stood on the car’s running boards. “Victoria has seldom displayed such enthusiasm for any distinguished visitor,” the papers said. “As the President drove up Government Street, gaily decked with the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack and Canadian ensigns, the crowd, in places eight deep, cheered enthusiastically. Mr. Roosevelt was loudly acclaimed all the way to Government House.”
“Ever since I have been in the White House I have continued a practice started in 1884 of coming to Canada every year, a pretty good record, I think,” he told reporters. “I am especially happy to be in British Columbia today.” Photographers took so many pictures that they left piles of used flashbulbs on the ground. FDR lunched with premier Duff Pattullo and discussed the long-proposed Alaska Highway, soon to be of vital strategic importance. (The front page of the Colonist that day had a story about Japanese forces attacking Shanghai.) Then he drove back to the ship.
“I am really sorry to go,” Roosevelt said. “It would have been grand to make a longer stay. It has been perfectly grand here. I hope to come again.” Five thousand Victorians stood in the rain to bid him farewell, singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as he sailed to Port Angeles.
Vice-presidents have shipped into Victoria too. Adlai Stevenson, VP to Grover Cleveland, visited in 1893 to check out the Esquimalt graving dock; John Nance Garner, FDR’s first veep, stopped here in 1935 on his way to a ceremony granting independence to the Philippines. And in 1988, just before he became president, George Bush senior dropped by for some fishing at Oak Bay.
“He got fish, and we didn’t talk politics,” recalls Bob Wright, head of the Oak Bay Marine Group. Bush had an evening free in Seattle, so his handlers thought he’d like to catch a few salmon. “They said they were tapping our phones three days ahead to check us out,” Wright says. Sharpshooters were posted on Mary Tod Island, helicopters buzzed overhead, and so many officials tried to get on Wright’s boat that he warned it might capsize. “But it was a nice evening, and they limited out on their fish.” The next morning, the provincial government commandeered an entire B.C. ferry to take Bush over to a black-tie event in Vancouver.
Other future presidents have played tourist in Victoria. In August 1962, Richard Nixon landed at the Butchart Gardens wharf on a yacht owned by a Seattle businessman. While his wife Pat and daughters went shopping downtown, Tricky Dick spoke with reporters about his run for the governorship of California, alongside his friend, Seattle lawyer John Erlichman, who was later indicted in the Watergate scandal. “The Nixon that I remember from that interview was an affable and charming fellow,” says G.E. Mortimore, who wrote for the Colonist at the time. “Much different from the dark figure he became in political folklore, and the vindictive plotter that one chapter in presidential history showed him to be.”
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, stayed in character. Darrell Bryan, CEO of the Victoria Clipper ferries, recalls that Clinton came up from Seattle the summer before he ran for president, along with other state governors such as Missouri’s John Ashcroft. After a stay at the Empress, Clinton continued his journey on the Royal Sealink ferry to downtown Vancouver – and briefly sat in the captain's chair, piloting the ship even though he wasn't licensed to do so. “There was some controversy,” Bryan says.
Of course, retired presidents have been here too. Clinton returned in 2006 to speak at the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre, for as much as $175 a ticket. His former VP, Al Gore, spoke last year about climate change for $200 a ticket. George W. Bush says that he's also going on a speaking tour after he retires in January, so he might come to Victoria. But it’s hard to imagine that he would command quite the same prices, or respect.
UPDATE (June 8, 2012): FDR’s Victoria limo still runs! Recently, a reader e-mailed the following:
“Our car, used for the parade with FDR, was called ‘Elinor’ as it was purchased for Elinor Dunsmuir, one of the daughters of the family. We still call the car Elinor!
“Mr. Allan Ford bought the car from the Dunsmuirs and in 1952 he gave the car to my father. My father, [name removed to protect privacy], treasured and restored the car until he gave it to me last year. He is still with us living in Summerland and 96 years young.”
The reader also sent the photo above, and said that Elinor is presently in an upholstery shop, getting an all-new leather interior. If there are any opportunities to see her in person, I’ll let you know.