IF THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE tightens in Texas, we’ll see Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and their surrogates winging in and out with dizzying speed, popping up for instant rallies and lightning fund-raisers before jetting on to the next chunk of electoral votes. Back before the age of easy air travel, however, presidential visits were as rare as political speeches starting with “I was wrong…”
Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley all visited Texas but snubbed Dallas; Theodore Roosevelt, on his way to a Rough Riders reunion in San Antonio in 1905, was the first U.S. president to honor our fair city. Following “Hail to the Chief” and a 21-gun salute, Teddy paraded through the downtown streets standing in a carriage drawn by a team of white horses. Some 75,000 frantic fans cheered him on his way to a banquet in the grand ballroom of the Oriental Hotel, where he feasted on saddle rock oysters, green turtle soup, frog legs and canvas-back duck.
Four years later, rotund chief executive William Howard Taft stopped in town following a meeting with Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in El Paso. Sporting a silk hat and tails, Taft, who was suffering from laryngitis, spoke to a crowd of 6,000 at the Fair Park race track, but it is doubtful that more than 60 heard a word he said. His dinner at the Oriental was much simpler than Teddy’s: sirloin steak, English peas and potato chips.
Twenty-seven years passed before we next laid eyes on a U.S. president. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who visited the Texas Centennial in 1936 at about the time the Republicans were nominating Alf Landon to oppose him in that year’s campaign. FDR’s visit to Dallas was not in keeping with his historical image as a crusading liberal. His address to 50,000 at the Cotton Bowl was to a segregated audience, and after his speech, he was driven to Lee Park where he unveiled the statue of Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy.
My first presidential glimpse was of Harry S. Truman on Sept, 27, 1948. Word was passed at school that students with parental approval could escape afternoon classes by agreeing to sit through the president’s speech. I persuaded a study hall pal to forge a note from my mother and boarded the street car to Rebel Stadium in Oak Cliff.
Truman was not well-liked or even respected here, and he was more than an hour late. While the band played the “Missouri Waltz” and the president’s Lincoln rolled onto the infield of the ball diamond, many shouted derisive remarks and some even mispronounced “Harry S.” in a vulgar manner. The notion of his beating Tom Dewey a few weeks later seemed preposterous.
Unlike FDR’s Cotton Bowl visit, the audience at Rebel Stadium was integrated. Grinning from ear to ear, Truman tore into the opposition like a pit bull and before long the crowd was yelling “Give ’em hell, Harry! ” As I was riding home, wondering how I was going to explain all this to my mother, I decided that old Harry wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
A Little-Noticed Tragedy.
During President Taft’s visit in 1909, a sad event occurred that has hardly been footnoted by Dallas historians. With the McKinley assassination of 1901 fresh on their minds, local officials brought in National Guard troops, armed with rifles and bayonets, to protect the president. A nervous trooper fatally stabbed Louis Richenstein, a Dallas County deputy clerk, as the stunned victim rushed across Parry Avenue to catch a street car near Taft’s entourage. The Dallas Morning News carried a brief account of the occurrence on page 42 of die next day’s edition.
Silent Cal, True to Form.
President Calvin Coolidge changed trains here in 1930, a year after leaving office. Wearing a dark-blue, double-breasted suit and smoking a cigarette with a waxed paper holder, the ex-president climbed down from the incoming train and strolled onto the station platform at the foot of Jackson Street. He stood there fidgeting for 10 minutes until the Texas Special arrived, and though the crowd of 3,000 shouted impatiently for him to “say something,” he never uttered a word.
Smile, Mr. President, You’re on TV, When Truman got off the train at the Texas and Pacific Railway Station in Fort Worth in 1948, he stared into the lens of a history-making event-the first local television broadcast. Of the handful of viewers in Dallas, some were amazed that a visual image could be transmitted all the way from Fort Worth, but others complained that the picture was so fuzzy they couldn’t tell Harry from Bess.