The Harrisburg area has long had ties to the presidency.
Its proximity to Washington, D.C., its history as a transportation hub and its status as a Northern capital, not to mention Pennsylvania’s coveted electoral votes, have drawn presidents and those who’ve aspired to the office for decades.
George Washington stopped here. So did Honest Abe.
William Henry Harrison was nominated for the presidency here. James Buchanan, Pennsylvania’s only president, was born in Franklin County, graduated from Dickinson College and lived in Lancaster County.
Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of Pennsylvania’s new Capitol in 1906. Vance McCormick, one-time mayor of Harrisburg and longtime owner of The Patriot-News, served as Woodrow Wilson’s reelection campaign manager in 1916.
Even today, central Pennsylvania has drawn attention with both candidates visiting within the past few weeks.
Here’s a brief sampling of the presidents who have visited central Pennsylvania in the past 100 years, since women gained the right to vote. Some came to campaign or promote policies. Others came to bring calm and comfort in the aftermath of disasters. And still others came for lighthearted reasons, such as a birthday party. We’ve had so many visits, we’re just spotlighting a few.
Hoover passed through Harrisburg on the way to and from a fishing lodge near Williamsport for a vacation in June 1930. The president attended church in Liverpool, Perry County. When he arrived, 21 people were worshipping at the Methodist church, but as word spread that Hoover was in town, hundreds appeared, most standing outside the overflowing church. After the service, Hoover was “whisked out of town with the cheers of the entire population ringing in his ears,” The Patriot reported.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
With the election for his second term days away, Roosevelt stopped in Harrisburg in October 1936 to attack his opponents, saying their policies ignored Americans’ dependence on one another. More than 75,000 people spilled into Capitol Park, with many others watching from Third Street rooftops, office buildings and homes.
“Giving the farmer of Dauphin or Lancaster county a good break has given a good break to the steelworker of Pittsburgh, the coal miner of Scranton, the white collar or factory worker of Philadelphia,” Roosevelt said. “And giving California, Minnesota and Texas a good break gives a good break to Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey.”
Harry S. Truman
Running for his first full term in June 1948, Truman gave an eight-minute speech from the rear platform of his train at Pennsylvania Railroad station in Harrisburg. He railed against the Republican-controlled Congress before a crowd of 1,500.
“All of you should make it a point to find out just what the issues are facing this country, and then 100 percent of you ought to go out and express your opinion at the polls, and then if you decide to kick me out I’ll be satisfied with it, but if you stay home then you have no complaint,” he said.
Eisenhower made a number of stops in central Pennsylvania and owned a farm near Gettysburg, which today is a national historic site. In October 1953, he celebrated his 63rd birthday at the Hershey Arena.
The extravaganza, which drew thousands, raised money for Republican candidates and honored the president with the “birthday gift” of Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships. The exchange program was created by Thomas B. McCabe, CEO of Philadelphia-based Scott Paper Co., and other Pennsylvania businessmen to promote peace among nations. The program still exists.
John F. Kennedy
Kennedy visited the midstate twice, to campaign for president in 1960 and to stump for others in 1962. In his September 1960 visit, Kennedy gave a televised speech at the Zembo Mosque and Scottish Rite Cathedral in uptown. As many as 9,000 people attended.
In his speech, he said the U.S. needed to thwart the spread of communism and put Americans back to work. The nation needed a change, he said. If elected, he would show that “government and the people can work together.”
A crowd of about 3,000 greeted Johnson in September 1964 outside the Farm Show Arena, where he appeared at a fundraiser with Genevieve Blatt, the first woman to hold a statewide elected office in Pennsylvania (secretary of internal affairs) and a future Commonwealth Court judge, who was running for U.S. Senate. Johnson shook hands with supporters while the Bishop McDevitt High School band played.
In his speech at the Farm Show Arena later, Johnson didn’t mention his opponent, Barry Goldwater, instead urging national unity. “The one division our forefathers most feared — the division they warned us against — was the division of extreme factionalism,” he said.
In 1966, Johnson participated in the centennial celebration of Dallastown, York County.
Nixon, whose parents once lived near Menges Mills, York County, visited Harrisburg a number of times, as vice president, as a presidential candidate in 1960 and as a campaigner for other Republicans. As president, he came to Harrisburg in June 1972 to survey the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Agnes. The Susquehanna River crested at 32.8 feet in the capital city, 15 feet above flood stage.
An Army helicopter carrying Nixon landed at the football field at William Penn High School, where thousands of people were being sheltered. Nixon visited with the evacuees. At one point, a child buried her head in Nixon’s coat, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Nixon took the child’s hand and walked along with the youth. Mayor Harold Swenson told The Patriot-News that Nixon said, “Harrisburg was too beautiful a city to give up.”
Ford, the U.S. House minority leader whom Nixon had recently nominated to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president, visited the Penn-Harris Motor Inn in October 1973 to raise money for the Dauphin County Republican Committee. Earlier in the day, he spoke to the General Assembly.
Ford’s visit came three days after the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate scandal. Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out Nixon’s order.
On the day Ford stopped in Harrisburg, Nixon agreed to surrender Watergate-related tape recordings to a federal judge. At a news conference, Ford praised Nixon’s decision, saying it would avoid a constitutional crisis.
“This should under any and all circumstances wipe out any semblance for (impeachment) action in the House of Representatives,” he said.
A week later, impeachment proceedings against Nixon began.
Like Nixon, Carter visited the midstate during a crisis. In April 1979, Carter came to Middletown less than a week after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. After touring the facility, the president told reporters that the situation was “quite safe for all concerned.”
He said that if Gov. Dick Thornburgh decided it was necessary for residents to evacuate the area, “I want to urge that these instructions be carried out calmly and exactly, as they have been in the past few days.”
The chief of the Air National Guard fire department said Carter’s visit boosted morale among those working at the reactor site. “They think if it’s safe enough for the president of the United States to come here, it’s not too bad,” he said.
In May 1987, Reagan visited the Harley-Davidson factory in Springettsbury Township, York County, to try to persuade Congress to ease legislation that he said would spark trade wars.
Four years before, Reagan had granted Harley temporary protective tariffs against motorcycles manufactured in Japan. In March, Harley said it no longer needed the tariffs to compete with Japan.
“The people who say that American workers and American companies can’t compete are making one of the oldest mistakes in the world. They’re betting against America itself, and that’s one bet no one will ever win,” Reagan said.
George H.W. Bush
Bush made several stops in the midstate as vice president and as president. In a visit to Conestoga Valley High School near Lancaster in March 1989, Bush promoted his budget proposal to boost funding for drug prevention and anti-drug education activities. He pointed to two programs in Lancaster County that sought to identify kids whose circumstances made them vulnerable to drugs.
“When drugs come here to the Conestoga Valley, that’s proof the drug epidemic is a national problem,” Bush said. “… The rising problem here simply shows how vulnerable every American city and town is to the menace of drug abuse.”
The day before Pennsylvania’s primary elections in April 1992, Clinton spoke at Market Square, backed by the Harrisburg High School band. The Democratic front-runner promoted his economic platform, promising to end federal tax cuts that encourage companies to move overseas, to propose a student loan program and to control health care costs.
He also sought to deliver a message of hope, saying the public is too cynical about politics.
“If you elect me, I’ll make it fun to be an American again, because we’ll be going in the right direction,” he said.
George W. Bush
In December 2008, about a month before his administration ended, Bush visited the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle.
He defended the Iraq War, saying the lack of a terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11 proved his policy was sound. He said the U.S. was also spreading democratic ideals through AIDS relief efforts in Africa. He thanked the enthusiastic audience for its dedication.
“It is not a matter of luck,” he said. “It is a tribute to the dedicated men and women who work day and night to defend our great land.”
Obama dashed into the midstate in March 2008 as part of a six-day bus tour through Pennsylvania, less than a month before the primary.
During stops in State College and at a town hall meeting at The Forum in Harrisburg, he promised to end the Iraq War, which has “fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment and has not made us more safe,” and to be a president who “believes in the law and the Constitution.”
“The American people want something different. … They want change,” he said.
Trump campaigned several times in the Harrisburg area in 2016, and Pennsylvania played a major part in his victory that year.
A day after Trump stumped at Cumberland Valley High School in August 2016, he said Harrisburg “looked like a war zone” from his plane. This remark drew an indignant response from Harrisburg officials, who said the president “made an unfortunate mistake in disparaging Pennsylvania’s capital city.”
Yet Trump returned to Harrisburg to mark his first 100 days in office in April 2017. He toured the Ames True Temper wheelbarrow factory on South Cameron Street, signing two executive orders, one of which urged the Commerce Department to examine all trade deals. That evening, he spoke to a crowd of thousands at the Farm Show Complex.
“I love this state. I love the people of this state,” he said. Pennsylvania “carried us to a big, beautiful victory.”
This election season, Trump returned to central Pennsylvania. Last month, he held a rally at Harrisburg International Airport on the same day that he nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
Days later, the president was diagnosed with the coronavirus. On Sunday, he said he was healthy enough to resume campaigning, which he did this week.
The 2020 campaign has also seen numerous visits from the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, including visits to Harrisburg on Labor Day and to Gettysburg earlier this month.
More central Pennsylvania history:
· Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 took a deadly toll on central Pennsylvania
· Controversial busing plan sought to desegregate Harrisburg schools 50 years ago
· Harrisburg history marked by moments of racial unrest