Wednesday, November 5, 2008

When will the president pay a visit?

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 5, 2008


A quadrennial ritual drew to a close last night. The last bunting was draped, the final speech orated, the last tattered streamer and deflated balloon swept by Joe the janitor.

Across the Juan de Fuca Strait, Democrats in Clallam County had planned to spend eight hours of election day on a Port Angeles street corner waving signs.

At the Red Jacket Lounge and Cabaret in downtown Victoria, an event called Obamarama was to offer shooters in Republican red and Democratic blue.

In Vancouver, the group Democrats Abroad were to gather at a Yaletown brewery at about the time the polls closed in Vermont, Virginia and (gulp) Florida. So many wanted to attend what they anxiously hoped would be a victory party that a second celebration was arranged at another location.

Barring a tie in the Electoral College, or some fiasco in the balloting (and how likely is that?), our neighbours now have a new president. No. 44. Leader of the Free World.

So, how about a visit?

Some of us in Victoria can even see America from our front porches.

The province is playing host to the Olympics in less than 16 months.

Guaranteed good seats for a sitting American president.

We've had a few presidential visits in the past.

No. 42 came here (twice), as did Nos. 36 and 32. The first president to visit, No. 29, received a grand welcome. He dined well, received huzzahs, but the visit is remembered, if at all, for not ending well.

As it turned out, the president was dead within a week.

Could it have been the shellfish?

Bill Clinton had no seafood difficulties in his visits to the province. He came here in 1993 for a summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, returning four years later for a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group.

During that visit, he stopped at a Gastown shop to purchase a statuette of a bear's head as a gift for his lover. Less than a year later, Monica Lewinsky turned over the marble-like figure to a special prosecutor's office.

Lyndon Johnson flew into Vancouver in 1964 to sign the Columbia River treaty. As he left the airport, he stopped the motorcade to greet a woman and her four children standing along the road.

The treaty was signed at a ceremony at the Peace Arch on the border.

It was announced that the United States had forwarded a cheque to Ottawa for $253,939,534.25 in payment for the downstream benefits.

“You Canadians went for that last 25 cents,” the president noted in wonder.

Earlier, premier W.A.C. Bennett had shoved a brightly coloured totem pole into the president's hands. The gift did not wind up in any special prosecutor's office.

In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt arrived at Victoria aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Phelps. He toured the scenic waterfront in an open car.

About 15,000 citizens, including many school children who had been given a half-day holiday in honour of the visit, lined the flag-bedecked streets.

Spotting a child with a bouquet at the gates to Government House, the president ordered his driver to halt. He accepted the flowers and planted a kiss on the cheek of seven-year-old Lorraine Roberts.

Nearby, eight boys and girls dressed as Beefeaters in the costumes worn by the guards at the Tower of London saluted the dignitary with pikes and halberds.

Mr. Roosevelt spoke with premier Duff Pattullo about building a highway through the province linking Alaska to Washington State.

“The more good roads there are, the more people will travel,” the president told reporters who gathered around his car.

The outbreak of war a few years later led to the construction of the Alcan Highway, which opened 66 years ago this month.

The first sitting U.S. president to set foot on Canadian soil was Warren Gamaliel Harding, who arrived aboard the USS Henderson on July 26, 1923. Immersed in scandal in Washington, the president had embarked on a five-week transcontinental tour, stopping in Vancouver after salmon fishing off Campbell River on his return from Alaska.

An onshore battery fired a 21-gun salute as his ship arrived in the waters of English Bay before berthing at the foot of Burrard Street. Mr. Harding was driven to Stanley Park along streets filled with fluttering Union Jacks and stars and stripes.

Not known as much of an orator, Mr. Harding's words were warmly received by a large crowd. He promised the gathering that his country would never annex its neighbour to the north, and he teasingly advised Canadians to not annex his own land.

The 57-year-old president found time to play 12 holes of golf, cutting his round short after complaining of shortness of breath. The chief executive enjoyed a lavish banquet. The former newsman even found time to drop in on the reporters' club.

The next day, on route to Seattle, the Henderson rammed a U.S. destroyer in fog. The president had been shaving at the time of the collision, but suffered no injury.

In the early evening of Aug. 2, Mr. Harding was resting in a San Francisco hotel with two nurses in attendance as he recuperated from what was believed to be food poisoning from Alaskan crabs. His wife was reading favourable press clippings to him when he shuddered and died.

Back in Vancouver, members of the local Kiwanis commissioned the sculptor Charles Marega to design a monument in honour of the Harding visit. Unveiled in 1925, the semi-circular memorial features two bronze bald eagles, bronze figures of Columbia and Canada, and a bas relief of the late president. It cost a princely $45,000.

A few years later, Time magazine was outraged when the Vancouver Sun serialized an expose titled, “The Strange Death of President Harding.”

The author, a former FBI agent of dubious honesty, posited the president was murdered and his killer none other than Mrs. Harding.

Among the headlines: “Girl and babe are trailed”; “Family quarrel in White House”; and, the piece de la resistance, “Did his shellfish illness in Vancouver provide ‘alibi' for subtle poison plot?”

If No. 44 does visit, he would be well advised to go with the chicken over the seafood.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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