President Biden arrives at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to attend a get-out-the-vote event for Rep. Mike Levin in Oceanside on Nov. 3, 2022.
President Joe Biden arrives at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to attend a get-out-the-vote event for Rep. Mike Levin in Oceanside on Nov. 3, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Presidents just can’t stay away from San Diego.

Gerald Ford met the San Diego Chicken here, John Kennedy’s plane picked up a couple cases of scotch, and Bill Clinton fed a giraffe. Earlier, Richard Nixon diplomatically declined to confirm that San Diego is America’s Finest City, Franklin Roosevelt called our county’s motto a tribute to democracy, and locals greeted Benjamin Harrison as “our uncrowned king.”

Now, we can add a new name to the list of chief executives who’ve visited our fair city.

President Biden speaks to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rep. Scott Peters, Rep. Mike Levin and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria in Oceanside on Nov. 3, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

With Joe Biden’s Thursday visit to campaign for Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, who’s in a tight re-election race, he will be the 15th president in a row – and 17th overall –  to make a trek to San Diego from the White House. Not bad for a town perennially in the shadow of its glitzier neighbors to the north.

Here’s a look back at the commanders in chief who hoped for a sunny reception here.

A Flowery Reception and an Amplified Voice

Benjamin Harrison became the first sitting president to visit San Diego way back in 1891, when the city’s population was only about 16,000.

“The city today is decked out in a holiday attire of the national colors, the walls of her principal buildings are hidden behind masses of gay-hued bunting, and every flag is flying triumphantly from the very top of its staff,” gushed The San Diego Union.

The welcoming committee even wrote up a flowery tribute to the president, “our uncrowned king … Be gladsome song in praise of thee/And welcome’s beaming eye/From North and South, from sea to sea/Beneath our sunny sky.”

Gladsome song or no gladsome song, Harrison was scheduled to have breakfast at the Hotel Del Coronado, a popular spot for presidents. His entourage included First Lady Caroline Harrison and an entourage of cabinet members, their wives, the “presidential stenographer,” and – last and presumably least – “the newspaper men.”

The next few presidents didn’t come to town, although one of them – Theodore Roosevelt – later visited along with his wife Edith and her remarkable hat (it’s on video!). As I wrote earlier this year in an article about San Diego’s LGBT past, the Roosevelts were close friends with two influential local women who appear to have been a lesbian couple.

Woodrow Wilson made a notable visit in 1919, when he spoke to a crowd estimated at 50,000 at City Stadium, now Balboa Stadium. He thundered in support of American membership in the League of Nations: “The heart of humanity beats in this document!” he declared while holding a copy of the league’s covenant. “It would be a death warrant to the children should league participation be rejected.”

Wilson’s speech marked the first time a president’s voice had been electronically amplified, and he grumbled about the microphone placed above him. A few weeks later, a stroke felled Wilson and helped doom his bid to join the forerunner of the United Nations.

FDR Has a Secret, Sort of, and Truman Whizzes By

Franklin D. Roosevelt made at least three visits to San Diego, including one in 1938 when he dedicated the Civic Center (now the County Administration Building) in front of 25,000 people.

According to the Union, he praised the county’s motto – “The noblest motive is the public good” – and said “if we all carry that motto in our hearts, in every city and community in the land, there is no question but the proper thing, American democracy, will survive.”

He also declared he felt like “the godfather of the Navy in San Diego.” As I wrote a few years ago in a very belated Fact Check, this was a bit of stretch.

Another visit by FDR, a military trip in 1944, was a semi-secret due to the wartime conditions of World War II. “The president accepted his fourth term nomination here, speaking into a microphone that carried his words to the Chicago convention and all the country,” the Union reported.

Harry Truman campaigned here in 1948, zipping in a motorcade through Mission Hills, and Dwight Eisenhower helicoptered into Chula Vista in 1960 for a speech to local Rotary Clubs.

JFK and the Super-Snotty Teenagers

President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to San Diego included a drive on the Cabrillo Highway, now State Route 163, and a motorcade ride down El Cajon Boulevard. Here he passes a landmark diner that’s still in business. / Photo courtesy of James Daigh

John F. Kennedy visited San Diego on June 6, 1963, to make a commencement speech at San Diego State College, now San Diego State University, just five months before his death. Back in 2010, local sculptor Ruth Hayward told me that she and her co-workers spotted Air Force One on the tarmac at the airport: “The presidential plane (a Boeing 707) was parked about 70 feet from our building,” she said. “One day I saw them load in a mattress and two cases of scotch … we all asked ourselves if we were witnessing some history.”

JFK’s open-air motorcade took him through the city, and several teenagers ditched junior high to watch him go by on El Cajon Boulevard. They stood across from the Rudford’s diner and waited.

“I had my recently acquired 35mm Exakta camera with a 135mm portrait lens along with me,” recalled James Daigh in a 2010 interview. “Kennedy’s Harvard accent was fodder for mockery then, and two of my friends said they’d get his attention by doing that. They hollered ‘Cuber, Cuber’ loudly and repeatedly (Cuba and the Castro regime being topical), and he looked over, and I snapped the photo.”

Rudford’s is still around, and the photo – which captured the president with the restaurant in the background – is emblazoned in a 6 foot by 12 foot enlargement on its western outside wall.

JFK was assassinated just five months after visiting here.

The next president, Lyndon Johnson, visited Camp Pendleton in 1967 and made a campaign stop in 1964 on his way to a landslide victory. San Diego was one of the only counties in the state to support his opponent – Barry Goldwater.

Nixon Demurs and Ford Meets a Mascot

Richard Nixon visited several times during his presidency, including a 1970 visit when he held a rare state dinner outside the White House for Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz at the Hotel Del Coronado. Frank Sinatra and John Wayne were among the guests.

In 1972, then-Mayor Pete Wilson, stung by a scandal that robbed San Diego of the Republican National Convention in 1972, started calling us “America’s Finest City.” In a campaign speech here that year, Nixon declined to confirm or deny we were, in fact, finer than all the rest. But he did say San Diego was his “luckiest city,” one that supported him every time he appeared on the ballot – in races for senator, for vice president, for governor, and for president.

Gerald Ford also campaigned here in 1976, when he met the San Diego Chicken at a rally at Grossmont Shopping Center in La Mesa. That is why – and I’m not making this up – the Ford Presidential Library and Museum has a giant fake chicken head in its collection.

From Carter to Obama, Trump, and Biden

Air Force One at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Oceanside on Nov. 3, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush all visited San Diego at least once while in office. In 1994, Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to the Wild Animal Park, where “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,” former park spokesman Tom Hanscom told me in 2010. The president made a restroom break, he said, “and the Secret Service agent sighed, knowing that this would mean another 10 or 15 minutes of glad-handing before they could get on with the tour.”

But the extra time allowed the park staff to get a staff photographer in position, and “a great photo of the First Family feeding a giraffe ran in papers around the world the next day.”

George W. Bush dropped by several times during his two terms, including visits to tour damage caused by the 2003 Cedar and 2007 Witch Creek fires. Most famously, in 2003 he flew to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off San Diego and spoke about the end of “major combat operations” in the Iraq War. The “Mission Accomplished” speech, named for a giant banner above him, is a historic debacle.

Obama visited San Diego several times, including a trip in 2011 to watch a college basketball game on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. Donald Trump only dropped by once in 2019 to visit the border wall and praise then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s approach to homelessness (never mind the deadly hepatitis A outbreak).

For his part, Biden will be on much friendlier terrain than Trump: Our once reliably Republican county has turned dark blue over the past 14 years, and we’ve gone for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 2008. Most of the presidents who’ve visited here – the count as of Biden’s visit will be 9 Democrats and 8 Republicans – would be mighty pleased.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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