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Since Harding in 1923, presidential stops in Alaska have brought the unexpected and memorable

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 28, 2015

Since the dawn of the jet age, Alaska has been a prime place for presidential stopovers, usually at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, and usually when the No. 1 passenger on Air Force One is headed to or from Asia. Nearly every president since statehood has landed in Alaska for carefully scripted visits, though there are often surprises, as President Ronald Reagan discovered in 1984.

About 10,000 people turned out on a blustery 35-degree morning in May that year when the travel plans of Reagan and Pope John Paul II intersected at Fairbanks International Airport. Reagan was returning from China and the pope was bound for South Korea. The pope was on the ground for about three hours, while Reagan stayed overnight.

Reagan wrote in his diary that he had left China at 10:35 a.m. Tuesday and landed in Fairbanks at 3:20 a.m. Tuesday. "Believe me, that can confuse you," he said.

While in Fairbanks, the president and Nancy Reagan stayed in a new home built for Sen. Frank and Nancy Murkowski on the Chena River. The home had been luxuriously furnished with borrowed items for the first family, but not everything went smoothly.

"There were some kinks that still needed to be worked out, specifically the water. It didn't have hot water," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Frank's daughter, said as part of a eulogy she gave in the U.S. Senate for Reagan in 2004.

"A call was made to then-Sen. Murkowski at about 3 a.m. asking how come there was no hot water. As the story goes, the president and my father were wandering around outside trying to figure out how to make the hot water come on. They learned you had to keep the water running for a while," she said.

Reagan and John Paul II met in a room in the airport terminal that would thereafter be called the Pope-President Room, demolished a quarter-century later when the airport was rebuilt. One of the only lasting mementos of that occasion is the red carpet, a portion of which was purchased for the stage at the Howling Dawg Saloon in Fox, where was described as "100 percent pure Pope carpet."

First president: Warren Harding

President Warren G. Harding took an extended trip to Alaska in 1923 by ship and train to mark the completion of the Alaska Railroad. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled in wartime from Southeast to the Aleutian Islands two decades later.

Ten sitting presidents have visited or at least stopped in Alaska since then. John F. Kennedy campaigned in Alaska before his election, saying he was the first candidate for president to do so. "There are three electoral votes in Alaska. I left Washington, D.C., this morning at 8 o'clock. It is now 11:30 in Washington. I have come, I figure, about 3,000 miles per electoral vote, and if I travel 800,000 miles in the next two months, we might win this election. But I am prepared to do it," Kennedy said at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.

The first president to schedule a flying stopover in Alaska was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who arrived on June 12, 1960 while on his way to Manila.

"Today, flying here through five time zones, across almost 3,500 miles at little less than the speed of sound, over fertile fields and prosperous cities, this trip is an index to North American growth in my own lifetime," Eisenhower told his Anchorage audience at Elmendorf.

Along with many other travelers, then and now, the distance covered in getting to Alaska has always made a big impression on traveling presidents.

President Lyndon Johnson figured he was wrapping up a 28,000-mile Pacific tour when he landed at Elmendorf on Nov. 1, 1966. He reminded those who greeted him that "the last time I came to Alaska was just after the Japanese had paid us a visit at Dutch Harbor," he said, referring to the 1942 bombing attack. Then-Rep. Johnson and Rep. Warren Magnuson, a Washington Democrat, went to Dutch Harbor on an inspection tour that summer and later issued a report calling for better cooperation between the Army and Navy.

LBJ and his wife traveled in a motorcade to downtown Anchorage near midnight and he rode alongside of the car, "shaking hands and touching fingertips," as his secretary put it, with the car moving slowly. He reached the Anchorage Westward Hotel and went down to the bonfire to shake more hands.

Johnson, the only Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election, stayed up late and estimated the airport crowd at 30,000, according to the diary kept by his secretary. He bemoaned how Robert Kennedy had gotten headlines for a crowd of 200, but he never got the same treatment. "At midnight, with 30,000, I can't see why we can't get color. But we won't," he said. He rehashed his trip with a small group of aides, including Bill Moyers, until after 3 a.m.

Nixon meets emperor

In 1971, President Richard Nixon met the emperor of Japan in Anchorage, though the Japanese foreign minister secretly complained of a "terribly annoying" U.S. plan to turn it into more than a "mere stopover." Documents declassified by the Japanese government in 2013 said Foreign Minister Takeo Fukuda, later the prime minister, wanted the meeting to be a "pure formality" and objected to plans by the Nixon administration set aside time for Fukuda to hold a working session.

In the end, the two sides agreed that about 40 minutes would be set aside for photos and for a private session between Nixon and Emperor Hirohito, with only a 10-minute session for the diplomats.

Nearly two decades later, it was a trip to attend Hirohito's funeral that led to a refueling stop at Elmendorf Air Force Base for President George H.W. Bush on Feb. 22, 1989.

"Elmendorf has long served as the departure point for presidents en route to the Far East and I want it to serve as the arrival point for a president to come fishing in this great land," Bush said.

One of his predecessors in the White House, Jimmy Carter, had already tried his hand at fishing in Alaska. On a summer 1980 stopover while returning from Japan, Carter said he had a "very delightful and very successful fishing trip" with Gov. Jay Hammond and Rupert Andrews, the sportfishing director for the state.

Carter, Secretary of State Ed Muskie and company flew from Elmendorf in two helicopters to an isolated lake in the Talkeetna Mountains. Hammond wrote that two people who may have been honeymooners at the supposedly deserted lake were stunned by the arrival of the helicopter contingent. "The couple went goggle-eyed when next they saw descending on them a pair of rubber waders containing the president of the United States," Hammond said.

Carter was an expert fly fisherman, but he considered himself a novice at tying flies, a skill he had practiced in the White House. He brought his own flies to Alaska and said the five hours he spent fishing were joyful.

"I had one small fly that I'd created that seemed to be exceptionally attractive to the grayling," Carter said. "It was an imitation of a small yellow caterpillar, tied with a chenille body and peacock herl strips down the back and it worked when nothing else would," he wrote in a 1988 book, "An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections."

Other presidents have used their refueling stops to do some sightseeing. President Gerald Ford made a refueling stop at Eielson Air Force Base on Nov. 29, 1975, while on his way to China, Indonesia and the Philippines. Accompanied by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he went to see an above-ground section of the trans-Alaska pipeline, then under construction.

"When I was a little boy, it was my life's ambition to visit a real pipeline," Kissinger intoned for reporters. "Now I have realized my life's dream."

Slime line duty

President Bill Clinton didn't call visiting Alaska a dream, but he said he had a goal of visiting all 50 states, which he completed by touching down in Anchorage on Nov. 11, 1994. He stopped at the Downtown Deli, the restaurant owned by Gov. Tony Knowles, and sampled the reindeer stew.

Earlier, he told an Anchorage audience about how his wife, Hillary Clinton, had spent the summer of 1969 in Alaska working on a slime line in Valdez and washing dishes at Denali National Park. In her autobiography, she said she worked on a "temporary salmon factory on a pier," removing salmon guts with a spoon. She said when she reported to a manager that some of the fish looked bad, she was fired. The state made a big impression on her, Bill said.

"So you can say to me, 'Welcome to Alaska,' but for Hillary, it's 'Welcome back to Alaska.' I've heard so much about it, I always felt that I had imagined it, seen it all in my mind. Those of you who, like me, have been married for a while, we've told each other the same stories so many times I feel that I could tell you what it was like when I worked in Alaska 25 years ago," he said.

Another summer visitor who ended up in the White House was George W. Bush, a Harvard Business School student who worked a desk job in Fairbanks in 1974 for Alaska International Air during the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

"It's nice to be back in Alaska," Bush said during a stop in Anchorage for a Republican gathering. "I had the privilege of voting in the Republican primary in 1974. As you know, you've got a one-month residency requirement, and I met it. So I voted. I can't remember who I voted for, but I was a proud participant. I know I'm the only president ever to have voted in any kind of primary in Alaska," he said.

Speaking at Elmendorf, he said, "I don't know whether your governor has admitted it or not, but he went to Yale. He probably slurs his words so it sounds like 'jail.' And we were classmates, and it's probably not politically correct to say it, but we were fraternity brothers. And I'm glad to be here with my old friend Tony Knowles."

President Barack Obama stopped at Elmendorf in 2009, which like most other White House visits to date had more to do with the operating limits of the presidential aircraft than any attraction on the ground.

The 2015 visit differs in that Alaska is not just an interim stop on the way to some other destination. Its purpose is to focus attention on the political and environmental implications of climate change, a worldwide phenomenon that goes far beyond the geography of aviation.