President Clinton visits Anchorage

This story was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on Nov. 12, 1994

President Bill Clinton breezed through Anchorage Friday like a spring thaw, giving a Veterans Day speech to a friendly and mostly military crowd in a hangar at Elmendorf Air Force Base, then pressing the flesh with a pack of delighted Democrats and a few essential Republicans, such as Gov. Wally Hickel, at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Scarcely a discouraging word was heard all day, even though the president's party took a drubbing at the polls Tuesday and his first audience belonged to an institution with which his relations have been touchy: the U.S. military.

The hangar talk was standard Veterans Day fare. A crowd estimated at 7,000 — mostly soldiers in camouflage fatigues, and their families — cheered as the president spoke of the sacrifices military people have made to keep America safe and strong. He noted that Alaska has a higher concentration of military people than any state in the country.

"On this Veterans Day, I salute you and on behalf of all the American people, I thank you," Clinton said. "Your country will never forget the extraordinary service you have performed."

The speech was mostly nonpolitical, but the nation's top Democrat couldn't stay completely away from the subject, not after the American people put Republicans in control of Congress. He noted Alaska's congressional delegation is all Republican.

"I want to pledge again to work with them on issues that concern the state of Alaska," he said.

Staff Sgt. Dan Pixey figured personal appearances like the one Friday are bound to help Clinton with military people. "You know, a handshake does a lot," he said.

After the hangar speech, the president and his motorcade headed downtown to the museum , where dejected Democrats left their troubles behind for a couple of hours and let Clinton 's togetherness message wash over them.

"This is the best we've felt all week," said Virginia Allen, a Tony Knowles campaign volunteer.

Hickel was among the guests, but it was Knowles who got a rousing ovation. A curious Secret Service agent asked who he was.

"He's either a local restaurant owner or our next governor," was the answer. Or so the story went as it traveled through the crowd of Knowles supporters, past and present Democratic office holders, and big-money contributors.

The 150 or so invitation-only guests sat on folding metal chairs in the west gallery and listened as the president taped a short radio broadcast to the nation. When he finished, only one person burst into enthusiastic applause — Mayor Rick Mystrom, a Republican.

Mystrom had arrived late and missed the instructions not to make any noise until a director signaled that the tape had stopped running.

With the formal business out of the way, the president and his wife spoke informally to the group.

"I've been trying for two years to get to Alaska and I finally made it," he said, then turned the floor over to the first lady so she could tell her story about working a slime line here, a story Clinton said he "heard for the 500th time" as their plane entered Alaska air space.

"She worked here 25 years ago, ah, when she was 6," he said.

"I was handed a spoon, some hip boots and a raincoat," she said. "And I think it was the best preparation for working in Washington."

After a few remarks about the strength of diversity in the new world economy, the president invited everyone to shake hands and chat, which he did for the next 20 minutes.

He smiled for one-on-one pictures; signed invitations; talked at length to people he knew, like former Govs. Bill Sheffield and Steve Cowper; and listened with apparent interest to what a lot of strangers decided to say after having all day to worry about their big moment.

State AFL-CIO chief Mano Frey said he really wanted to talk to Clinton about "multi-employer defined benefits pension plans," but decided to put it in a letter instead, which Clinton thanked him for and stowed in a jacket pocket — to read later, no doubt.

John Vezina, a coordinater for Knowles , said he told Clinton how helpful White House staff had been during the campaign. "I know it was a rough day Tuesday," Vezina said.

And what did the president say? Mostly he smiled and said "Nice to meet you." Except when he told Rep. Mike Navarre he'd better open his lens cap if he hoped to get a picture.

Eventually, the room cleared, leaving Clinton with a few aides and Secret Service agents. He spent a quiet minute examining a Rockwell Kent oil painting of Resurrection Bay then bought souvenirs at the museum gift shop.

While Clinton mingled inside the museum , a crowd of more than 200 waited outside in the snow hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Most were Clinton supporters, like LeMay Hupp, a school nurse in her 40s.

"He's the first president I've voted for who ever made it into office," she said. "He needs to know a few of us still support him."

Others, like Gary Poland, a 40-year-old maintenance man, didn't like Clinton at all but nevertheless brought his three children in hopes of seeing him. "I've never seen a president as long as I lived," he said.

There was one protester, 30-year-old Daren Nault, who held up a small green sign that misspelled the president's wife's name: "Get out Bill and Hilary," it read. "Alaska can not trust you."

Nault, who works filling Bush orders for a liquor company, said he didn't see why people should open their arms to Clinton . "He's just a person who got into office in a slick way," he said.

Almost everyone else cheered when they saw Clinton 's motorcade come down Seventh Avenue around 5:30 p.m, and they all groaned when it veered to the back side of the museum , allowing the Clintons to enter from the rear.

A rumor spread through the crowd that Clinton would leave from the front entrance, so everyone huddled in the cold for another hour. Meanwhile, Secret Service agents, using hand-held metal detectors, checked people for guns, even young children. One man quickly left the scene when he saw agents frisking people.

When Clinton strolled out of the museum 's main entrance, people erupted into cheers, and several women screamed, "I love you."

Clinton , smiling but looking tired, worked the crowd for 10 minutes, shaking hands with anyone who could push their way toward him.

Geri Curtis, who had stood in the cold nearly two hours, only had one thing to say after shaking hands with the president of the United States:

"His hands were warm," she said. "At this point, shaking hands with anybody would have felt good."

On the way back to Elmendorf and their flight to Indonesia via the Philippines, the Clintons took an unscheduled detour. The Big Mac-loving president chowed down on some reindeer stew at the Downtown Deli, the restaurant owned by Knowles .

Staff writers Sheila Toomey and Tom Bell contributed to this story.