Saturday, October 3, 2020

Plenty of presidential visits here in the past...

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, October 3, 2020

Before President Trump’s visit to Duluth earlier this week, this newspaper ran a story about how popular Duluth has become in election years for visits from high-profile candidates and their family members.


The story recounted how his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, was also here a little over a week ago, that Donald Trump Jr. showed up and Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump recently made a joint appearance here in support of the incumbent.


I’m sure you recall all that very recent history even if you’re only half paying attention. But the story sparked in me recollections of previous visits to Duluth by high-profile candidates, quite a few of whom I saw either as a civilian or a journalist, and one as a member of the Army National Guard.


Truman in Duluth, 1948
So today I thought I’d recall some of those in the past starting — believe it or not — with President Harry S. Truman in 1948. Truman, as vice president, had become chief executive upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, but was facing the electorate for the first time in his bid to remain in the highest office in the land.


He toured large swaths of the country by train during that successful campaign and eventually the Truman campaign train showed up in Superior, his starting off point in the Head of the Lakes for a visit by car across the bay to Duluth on a sunny autumn day. That’s when I saw him.


I was in fourth grade at Lincoln Elementary that fall and we were told by our teacher that anyone who wanted to be let out of school in the early afternoon to see the president should bring a note and we could be released.


I took the bus downtown with my mother and we stood at First Avenue East and Superior Street when Truman was driven by seated on the back of a top-down convertible, waving at the throngs — yes, that’s the proper word — that lined Superior Street along the route.


A bunch of teenagers on top of the building across the street were hollering “phooey on Dewey” as a smiling “Give ‘em Hell Harry” slowly rolled by. Truman’s Republican opponent was Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York making his second run for the presidency, having been defeated by ailing Roosevelt in 1944.


Eisenhower, Duluth MN 1952
Truman was the first president I saw in person but not the last, by far. He was succeeded by former Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower who was elected in 1952 after a campaign that also included a visit to Duluth. I just caught a fleeting glimpse of him as he was driven a block from our house en route to the airport after appearances downtown.


I knew the route he was to take so I waited for the entourage to come, and there was Ike in the back seat of a hard-top Cadillac limo, waving out a side window to people lining the avenue, his famous grin intact. I had actually seen him once before, still in uniform, being escorted around the Minnesota State Fair just after World War II. (Yeah, I’m that old.)


Our next president, John F. Kennedy, had campaigned in the area in 1960 but he also showed up in Duluth as president in September 1963 when he was gearing up for his run for a second term in 1964. I’ve written about this before in columns, but, briefly, I was a member of a Duluth-based Army National Guard unit that was activated for the visit of our commander in chief.


We were lining Superior Street but I was ordered to the entrance to Hotel Duluth along with about a dozen other troopers to hold back crowds as Kennedy entered the hotel, where he would stay the night. The unexpected duty got me within a few feet of the smiling Kennedy after he alighted from the Lincoln limo he would be riding in two months later when he was assassinated in Dallas.


Onward. In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater’s vice presidential running mate, U.S. Rep. William E. Miller, showed up in Duluth that fall, spending most of his few hours here on the UMD campus. By then I was a newspaper reporter and part of the team covering him. Goldwater was soundly defeated by Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president who had taken over when Kennedy was murdered. Miller disappeared into the mists of history.


Minnesota’s own Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson’s vice presidential pick, visited us numerous times throughout his lengthy political career as a U.S. senator. He got the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 but lost to Richard Nixon, who had campaigned here when he faced Kennedy in 1960 but I never saw him. 


Also in 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, running for president on the third party American Independent ticket as a segregationist, showed up in the Duluth Arena, drawing a huge crowd. I was seated with others in the media slightly behind the stage and noticed Wallace’s lectern was huge and thick, large enough for a speaker to duck into if shots were fired. That didn’t happen here, of course, but he later was shot and lived the rest of his life as a paraplegic. 


Humphrey returned to the Senate after losing the election, continuing his long-time association with the Head of the Lakes. I had lunch with him one of those times, and he always sent a Christmas card.


In 1976, following Nixon’s impeachment in1974, his vice president and successor, Gerald Ford, was the Republican selected to face Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia in the race for the White House. Carter won. He showed up here in 1978 campaigning for Democrats in the mid-term elections. He spoke in Symphony Hall on a stage lined with Democratic candidates from Minnesota and Wisconsin, most of whom lost that year. I didn’t meet him, but sat with the press in a front row where I noticed grease spots on his trousers. It’s always hard to eat on airplanes.


Carter lost to Ronald Reagan two years later. I’m not aware that Reagan ever graced the Northland, but his 1984 opponent, Vice President Walter Mondale, certainly had, and did. I’d met him before but he visited us at the News Tribune on one trip to Duluth during that campaign. He was over confident in light of the way things turned out.


The next sitting president to show up was Bill Clinton, half way through his second term, to campaign for Democrats. He spoke at UMD, where I was in the audience with other press people. I didn’t meet him but he made quite a splash here, even going for a run on Skyline Drive.


In 2004 Republican President George W. Bush appeared before an enthusiastic crowd in the Duluth Arena. I was there with other media members. We were corralled as far from the president as possible, in keeping with presidents’ lack of affinity with the press. His wife, Laura, campaigned here too, at Bayfront Park. They won.


Which brings us to the present. I will never count Trump among the presidents and candidates I’ve actually seen while campaigning in Duluth. When he was here on Wednesday I had to see a man about a horse.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

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