This is on my mind because the president of the United States is coming to Johnson City tomorrow. Many people are excited about it. Others seem, well, offended. The former either like and support President Trump or simply want the opportunity to possibly see a sitting president in person. Those not happy about Trump’s visit see it as chance to protest. That’s their right. I’m all for that. But I am saddened that one way some are choosing to protest is to request tickets to Trump’s rally at Freedom Hall in order to not go and deny the president a crowd.
Someone older and politically wiser was surprised when I described this social-media-driven effort. But someone else, also older and politically wiser, was surprised I didn’t think this type behavior has gone on by both “sides” for years, either puffing up or knocking down perceived public popularity of candidates or elected officials.
I just don’t understand that. Protest, yes. But to possibly keep someone genuinely interested in seeing the president, for whatever reason, from having a ticket you plan not to use? Forgive me, but it just goes against my grain.
It also creates a false “reading” that undermines your hope of making Trump appear unable to draw a sold-out crowd. If you know you’ve helped create vacancies in the audience, you’ve lost the chance to see what might have happened without such meddling.
Back to my rose-colored glasses: a clear childhood memory my two siblings and I share is October 20, 1970. It was a rainy day. I was 7 years old and in Mrs. Moore’s second-grade class at Lincoln Elementary. And President Richard M. Nixon was coming to Johnson City. Like Trump, Nixon was campaigning for the GOP candidate for one of Tennessee’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Here I have to ’fess up. I am from a mixed marriage. My father’s family were Democrats and my mother’s were Republicans. But I never heard a political argument in our home or at family gatherings. And we kids back then were taught to respect our elected officials. No matter who won, the president was our president. A nearby visit and chance to see the president, any president, was an opportunity to glimpse history. Who knew if or when such a chance might again arise.
My parents took us out of school that day for what they considered an educational outing: we were going to see the president. Who knows? Maybe the joy of not being in Mrs. Moore’s classroom for a day helped ignite my interest in government and politics. My brother Keith would have missed Miss Hawk’s sixth-grade class. My sister Pamela was a ninth-grader at John Sevier Junior High (ask your parents). My future brother-in-law Larry Fagans was already at Dobyns-Bennett and hadn’t yet met my sister. But he too remembers missing school for Nixon’s visit.
The Secret Service wasn’t releasing an exact itinerary for Nixon’s visit back in 1970, but then-First District U.S. Congressman Jimmy Quillen’s office had made public that Air Force One would land at Tri-City Airport sometime that morning, the presidential entourage would go by motorcade from the airport to East Tennessee State University via downtown Johnson City, and Nixon would speak during the noon hour.
My brother and sister say we were, as usual, running late. I’m guessing my father was working the graveyard shift at Mead Paper because if he had been working “days” or “3-to-11,” we probably wouldn’t have made the trip. They think Dad’s original intent was to take us all the way to ETSU, where a crowd of 20,000 was expected to turn out for Nixon’s outdoor rally.
We instead ended up parked off the then-two-lane Highway 36 (North Roan Street) just below the crest of the hill that marked the road’s descent into “town.” I sort of think this was Dad’s plan all along. He’d have known, based on the public statement that Nixon’s motorcade would travel from the airport to ETSU, that it would pretty much have to pass that stretch of 36. The vague “passing through downtown” would have meant multiple potential routes once it passed that point.
Surprisingly, we have no pictures. But, along with our mother Wanda, Pamela, Keith and I all have vivid memories of waiting for the motorcade, along with scores of others lining both sides of the roadway, and finally seeing it come into view as it crested the hill and then seeing it pass. And we did get to see the president. Keith says his initial disappointment when the presidential limousine came into view vanished a second later when Nixon, probably seeing the crowd-lined roadway come into view, appeared through the car’s sunroof. Pamela’s memory also includes that detail, that Nixon was standing and waving. Keith adds that Nixon was, at least at a point, flashing the “V” peace sign.
According to news accounts at the time, riding with Nixon in the presidential limo were U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and then-GOP-candidate for the state’s other Senate seat, Bill Brock. Brock went on a couple of weeks later to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Albert Gore Sr. In the car behind the president was Mrs. Brock, riding with Quillen and his wife, Cecile.
Larry had a different perspective. He and a friend went to the airport to watch Air Force One arrive (even though authorities had discouraged people from doing this as there was no “official” reception planned there). “I had a lot of friends going out there,” Larry said. “The parking lot was packed. We sat on the hood of the car and ate lunch we’d picked up at Pal’s across from D-B when we left school. We saw Air Force One come in, but weren’t able to see it actually touchdown on the runway. But if I am remembering right, the limousines were parked in front of the terminal and the Secret Service brought Nixon through the terminal and out the front doors to the waiting cars. People were screaming his name and he was throwing the peach sign all around and smiling.”
Some of us were Nixon fans. Some of us were not. But either way, we’d wanted to see our president in person. “He was the president,” Larry said. “It was like seeing Queen Elizabeth if you’re British.”
The next day’s Kingsport News reported a crowd of 50,000 had turned out for Nixon, despite a steady rain that day nearly 48 years ago. The October 21, 1970 headline on the front page of the Kingsport Times: “Nixon comes to ‘Nixon Country.’ ” The article noted that among those gathered in front of ETSU's Dossett Hall were anti-war protesters.
I guess the public’s view of the presidency isn’t what it used to be, and no doubt some would say Nixon’s downfall after Watergate started the ball rolling downhill.
Wonder what local headlines will say Tuesday?
In looking through old newspapers (online) for information about Nixon’s visit, here’s some flashback trivia:
• Then-Speaker of the House for the Tennessee General Assembly William Jenkins, of Rogersville, was master of ceremonies for Nixon’s appearance at ETSU. (Jenkins went on years later to win election to the First District Congressional seat upon Quillen’s retirement).
• After departing ETSU, Nixon was scheduled to go back to the airport and fly to Asheville.
• Traveling along Airport Road (Highway 75), the presidential motorcade would have passed the Olde West Dinner Theatre, where Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was being performed and $6 got you the show and a buffet featuring sweet and sour pork, chicken cacciatore and a host of salads, side items, dessert and coffee or tea.
• The Kings-Giant Plaza shopping center held its official grand opening with a 9:30 a.m. ribbon cutting the day after Nixon’s visit. (The property is now the sprawling medical complex at Stone Drive and Clinchfield Street.)
• Gibson’s Discount Center at 1505 E. Stone Dr. was offering an eight-bottle carton of 16-ounce Pepsi-Cola for 59 cents (plus deposit), and three-pound canned Hormel hams for $2.39 (”limit one while they last”).
• Kroger (locations at Parkway Plaza and East Center Street) was offering Duncan Hines cake mix for 37 cents, a three-pound package of Tide detergent for 78 cents, and a 40-pack of Zagnut or Clark junior bars for 79 cents.