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Welcoming the president is a matter of courtesy, not party politics

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published August 9, 2015

On the day after Veteran's Day in 2009, Gov. Sean Parnell declined the opportunity to travel to Elmendorf Air Force Base and attend a 15-minute speech by President Barack Obama.

Parnell was in Anchorage that day, but he said he skipped the ceremonies because he wasn't granted a tete-a-tete with Obama during the president's two-hour refueling stop.

Parnell should have attended the speech and represented Alaskans. But he said that since he couldn't meet with Obama he would stick to his prearranged appearance at the annual conference of the Associated General Contractors.

"My choice was keep my commitment to the contractors or sit and fill a seat for the president's events. We were not permitted any civilian interaction. We were told there would be no greeting of the president nor talking with the president, I'd be filling a seat," Parnell said six years ago after I wrote a column in the Fairbanks newspaper criticizing his decision.

Parnell said he sent numerous staff members to hear Obama on his behalf and "I've extended an invitation to speak with him the next time he comes through Alaska."

The timing of the presidential visit had been delayed a day because Obama had just attended a memorial in Texas for the 13 soldiers killed a week earlier by an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood.

The AGC convention was a three-day event and it would have been easy for Parnell to speak at a different hour or different day and attend both events. There is no doubt he would have done so had it been a Republican president on a refueling stop.

At the time, this seemed like a ridiculous holdover from the bitterness of the 2008 election. It still does.

The only reason to rehash this history now is that the Republican Party of Alaska pretends that Obama offended Alaskans that day.

The Republican communications director, Suzanne Downing, brought this up in response to a column I wrote urging the congressional delegation to welcome the upcoming visit of Obama to Alaska and suggesting that it is a great opportunity for our state. I didn't mention anything about Parnell, but she wanted to "correct the record" about Obama's 2009 visit.

Downing says the Obama administration cast "serious shade" on Parnell by offering him a seat in the fourth row.

In fact, Parnell had to work long and hard to find a reason to take offense.

The lasting lesson from this bit of Alaska history is that it should not be repeated, no matter who is in office.

Dan Sullivan, then the mayor of Anchorage, attended the event, as did Mark Begich, then a U.S. senator. Obama gave a shout-out to Begich, as he did to an Alaska politician who wasn't even there.

"You know, we're here in 'America's Last Frontier.' And most of you are far from home. And I know your service is made a little easier by your unbelievable neighbors. So we want to thank your local and state leaders, Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, all the people of Anchorage and Alaska for their incredible support," Obama said in his Elmendorf speech.

Obama's speechwriter apparently had been told that Campbell would attend, but with the delay in the travel schedule, the lieutenant governor had gone to Sitka for a graduation ceremony at the law enforcement training academy, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Had Parnell been in the audience, Obama would have mentioned him, not Campbell.

About 2,800 people attended the event at Hangar 1, most of them military personnel and their families, along with a couple hundred civilians.

Forget about whether the president is a Democrat or Republican. "To hell with the politics, just do what's right for Alaska," as the late Sen. Ted Stevens used to say.

Whenever a president visits Alaska, our statewide elected leaders need to attend on behalf of all Alaskans and serve as gracious hosts. The party labels are irrelevant.

Anything else throws "serious shade" on Alaska's reputation as a place where people with different opinions are not just tolerated, but welcomed.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

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