Last year, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in just ten states once the primary season was over. New York wasn’t one of them. Both candidates knew that the state sat immovably in the Democratic column; they visited New York City only to raise funds.
But before the ossification of the electoral map gave us Red and Blue America, presidential aspirants had to visit New York for their own good. Politically contested and electorally vital, New York was central to presidential races. And the relationship between the nation’s chief executives and its greatest metropolis produced countless episodes, ranging from crucial to merely colorful, that shaped our history.
From 1785 to 1790, New York was America’s capital; then Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison struck the famous “dinner table bargain” (in New York, by the way) that created Washington, D.C. But even after the capital moved to Washington, New York maintained its outsize role in American politics. Through most of the nineteenth century, New York boasted more electoral votes than any other state and often had the power to swing presidential elections. In the election of 1844, for example, New York had 36 electoral votes, far more than runner-up Pennsylvania’s 26. That year, James Polk carried New York over Henry Clay by just 5,106 votes. If Clay had won New York, he would have become president. (Ironically enough, Polk’s policies led to the eventual statehood of California and Texas, which became instrumental in the diminution of New York’s political might.) Four years later, New York switched from Democratic to Whig, allowing Zachary Taylor to defeat Lewis Cass for the presidency. Once again, if New York had gone the other way, the election would have, too. During the nineteenth century, 21 of 25 election winners carried New York.
Because of the state’s political importance, presidents made it their business to visit New York City—especially its theaters. In the days before TV and radio, attending plays was an important way to see and be seen by voters; in fact, every American president has been to the theater at least once, according to historian Thomas Bogar. These visits often had an impact on the audience as well as the politician. In 1819, five years before his close-but-no-cigar first presidential run, Andrew Jackson saw a production of the comic opera The Poor Soldier. When the performers made extemporaneous references to the visiting general, he received loud cheers from the crowd. Years later, in 1833, Jackson attended four theatrical performances on a trip to New York. That was too many for the president, who was in his mid-sixties. He fell ill after his four-show binge and “never set foot in a theater again,” Bogar writes.
New York was vital to the presidential aspirations of Abraham Lincoln. In February 1860, Lincoln delivered an antislavery speech at New York’s Cooper Union that, according to biographer Isaac Arnold, “probably did more to secure his nomination, than any other act of his life.” As New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote when he reprinted the speech, “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.” The same day he gave the speech, Lincoln sat for photographer Matthew Brady’s soon-to-be-famous portrait. “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president,” Lincoln supposedly said later.
Lincoln’s top general, Ulysses S. Grant, moved to New York City after his own tenure in the White House. In 1884, he went bankrupt in a financial scandal, and he was diagnosed with throat cancer a few months later. Hoping to make some money for his family before he died, he began work on a memoir, receiving both writing and business advice from his friend Mark Twain, who also lived in New York and eventually published the book. Only when Grant had five weeks left to live did he leave the city and move upstate to Mount McGregor. With the New York Times running a deathwatch on him, Grant managed to finish the manuscript just before he died. The book became a hit—selling 300,000 copies, restoring his family finances, and serving as a model for future presidential memoirs. Grant was interred in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, becoming (along with his wife, Julia) the answer to the enduring riddle: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”
A year after Grant’s death, President Grover Cleveland went to New York to watch memorial parades in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It was a week before his wedding to Frances Folsom, and excited citizens and reporters swarmed him. Marching bands greeted him with love-themed songs, such as Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and “He’s Going to Marry Yum-Yum,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Ten years after that—in October 1896, a month before the presidential election pitting William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan—Cleveland returned to New York to see a production of The Geisha with Bryan. Despite this demonstration of Democratic unity, McKinley won New York and with it the presidency.
McKinley’s vice president soon became president himself—the only president born in New York City. This was Theodore Roosevelt, who had also served as the city’s police commissioner before becoming governor of the state. His relations with the city were extensive—not only beyond the scope of this article but likely meriting their own.
New York entertainment offered much more, of course, than theater. In the 1920s, the city was home to the nation’s biggest star: George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The Yankee slugger met or corresponded with every president from Wilson to Truman. He even took a picture with George H. W. Bush in 1948, when the future president was captain of the Yale baseball team. As a number of presidents would learn, though, interactions with the Babe could be unpredictable. In 1920, Warren G. Harding’s team sought Ruth’s endorsement. Ruth’s reaction: “Hell no, I’m a Democrat.” Calvin Coolidge had a more famous encounter with Ruth, who greeted him, one hot day in 1924, with the words, “Hot as hell, ain’t it, Prez?” (Some accounts have Ruth saying this to Harding.) Though he probably meant little by it, Ruth’s crack signaled that presidents were growing less respected and professional athletes more. By the following year, a New York Times editorial could argue that “it involves no disrespect to Calvin Coolidge . . . to suggest . . . that the Home Run King is the first citizen of the land.”
Coolidge’s successor suffered even greater indignities at Ruth’s hands. In 1928, Herbert Hoover’s campaign organization asked Ruth to pose for a picture with its candidate. Ruth, who supported Hoover’s opponent, New York governor Al Smith, refused. Reporters learned of the rebuff, which threatened to make trouble for the Babe with some of his business interests—notably, the GOP-leaning papers that ran his syndicated column. He relented and posed with Hoover but also posed for a photo with Smith, along with eight other New York Yankees and their batboy. It did no good: the team’s home-state governor lost the election. Two years later, as Ruth was negotiating for more pay, someone pointed out that his staggering $80,000 annual salary was higher than President Hoover’s $75,000. Ruth replied, “I had a better year than he did”—a crack that later, as Hoover grew inextricably linked with the Great Depression, became symbolic of his ineffectiveness.
Though Ruth flummoxed some presidents, he delighted others. While running for president against the unfortunate Hoover, Franklin D. Roo- sevelt—from Hyde Park, New York—traveled to Chicago and threw out the first pitch in Game Three of the 1932 World Series, between the Yankees and the Chicago Cubs. This was the game in which Ruth hit one of baseball’s most famous home runs: the “called shot” off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root. Ruth, in response to taunts by Chicago fans, apparently pointed to the outfield—the grainy film footage is inconclusive—before clobbering the ball into the center-field bleachers. FDR had to be careful not to cheer too loudly as the big slugger rounded the bases, though, as he wanted Illinois’ 29 electoral votes. He got them, along with New York’s.
In October 1945, President Harry Truman visited Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to commission a ship, the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, named after his former boss. From the deck of the USS Missouri, he viewed a procession of 1,200 Navy planes and 50 warships—“a spectacle of national power such as no Commander in Chief had ever beheld,” as biographer David McCullough puts it. Truman then rode to Central Park with New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for a Navy Day speech, driving past cheering crowds exceeding 3 million.
Later in his presidency, Truman visited New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the centers of American Jewish intellectual life. Truman had supported establishing the State of Israel despite strong State Department opposition. A factor in the president’s decision was his boyhood reading, which included the Bible and the multivolume history Great Men and Famous Women, edited by Charles Horne. One of the book’s heroes was Cyrus the Great, the sixth-century BC Persian emperor who permitted the exiled Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. During the seminary trip, Truman’s former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, referred to the president as “the man who helped create the State of Israel.” Truman promptly corrected him: “What do you mean, helped create? I am Cyrus, I am Cyrus!”
Dwight Eisenhower lived in New York before becoming president, serving as president of Columbia University from 1948 until 1953 (though he spent part of that time on leave, serving as NATO’s supreme allied commander). Ike enjoyed New York but never became fully comfortable there, refusing to walk the streets of Morningside Heights at night without his service revolver. In June 1950, he attended the opening of the Irving Berlin show Call Me Madam. Berlin later retooled one of the show’s songs, “They Like Ike,” into “I Like Ike,” which became both a slogan and a song for Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential run.
No president in the last 50 years has had a closer relationship with New York City than John F. Kennedy. Before his presidency, he often stayed at a suite at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side and enjoyed the city’s entertainment. On a postelection trip to New York in December 1960, the president-elect met with United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, but his press team also announced that he would attend the musical Camelot. That show, of course, became an important part of Kennedy lore when Jacqueline Kennedy, in a post-assassination interview with journalist Theodore White, described JFK’s supposed love of it. But that day, at least, Kennedy didn’t see Camelot; he opted instead for The Best Man, by Gore Vidal—who shared a stepfather with Jackie Kennedy and who sat next to Kennedy during the performance. The play was overtly political; one of its protagonists, Joe Cantwell, was a philandering politician described as a “fancy Dan from the East.” The parallels between Kennedy and Cantwell were so overt that Kennedy even asked Jackie: “Is Gore writing about me?” The number of Secret Service agents surrounding JFK at the Morosco Theater prompted Variety to observe: “If Abraham Lincoln had had this kind of protection, he would have been around to applaud the final curtain of Our American Cousin.”
In January, while still president-elect, Kennedy again flew into New York for a one-night stay at his Carlyle suite—the hotel never rented it out before checking with the Kennedy staff—and saw Henry Fonda in Critic’s Choice. He departed the next day, but soon returned to see the musical Do Re Mi at the St. James Theatre. While Kennedy managed to duck the crowds at the first show by leaving as soon as it ended, he couldn’t escape at the second, getting so swarmed at intermission that the Secret Service decided to remove him from the theater just before the final curtain. As Bogar notes, the incident showed Kennedy and his protectors that “any theatergoing during his presidency would have to be rigidly controlled.”
As president, Kennedy returned to the Carlyle so often that it was dubbed “the New York White House.” His suite became a place of legend. It’s widely rumored that he spent the night with Marilyn Monroe there after her breathy, seductive performance of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at a star-studded birthday event in Madison Square Garden in May 1962. As the story goes, Monroe arrived at the Carlyle suite via a series of secret tunnels. New York reported later that these “tunnels” may have been just a passageway in the subbasement connecting the Carlyle to an adjacent building.
Unsurprisingly, Lyndon Johnson had a much more casual relationship with New York City than Kennedy did; he preferred to spend vacations on his Texas ranch, and New York’s cultural offerings held little appeal for him. But LBJ did have at least one refreshing New York experience. On April 4, 1968, four days after he announced that he wouldn’t seek another term as president, Johnson visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for the installation of Archbishop Terence Cooke, even though the unpopular, Vietnam-burdened president had been limiting his appearances to such places as American Legion posts and army bases, where he was unlikely to encounter protesters. That day, however, buoyed by editorials praising his decision not to run again, Johnson heard an unfamiliar sound: an ovation from the crowd of 5,000. Cheering crowds even greeted him in the streets. The New York trip was a welcome respite from Johnson’s troubled time in the White House—though a fleeting one, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that very day, setting off race riots across the country and ending Johnson’s brief approval-ratings spike.
Unlike Johnson, Richard Nixon had a connection to New York before becoming president: he lived there while working as a lawyer. It was in Gotham that he met Len Garment, who would become one of his White House aides. Nixon and Garment also played music together, Garment on the clarinet and Nixon on the piano, at Garment’s place in Brooklyn. According to Theodore White, Nixon’s New York period served as a kind of cultural awakening, a time when the future president read more, attended classical music performances, and went to the theater regularly.
After Nixon, relations between presidents and New York became significantly rougher. Perhaps the most notorious recent intersection of New York and presidential politics was announced by a newspaper front page on October 30, 1975, the day after President Gerald Ford announced that he wouldn’t bail out the bankrupt city. The Daily News‘s immortal headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD forever poisoned New Yorkers’ views of the president.
The truth was more complicated. Ford held no animus toward New York; he simply believed that it shouldn’t get federal assistance until it enacted fiscal reforms, and he wanted to encourage it to tighten its belt. “The problem was New York had a bad policy of paying too much in pensions, paying too much in salaries to New York City employees,” Ford later recalled. “And the City was going bankrupt because of this irresponsible fiscal policy. And I was not, as president, going to bail them out unless they took corrective action.” Mayor Abe Beame eventually agreed to spending cuts, and Ford signed a law bailing out New York two months later. Nevertheless, he was pilloried in New York for his tough stance. Manhattan congressman Ed Koch, who would later become mayor and balance the city’s budget, denounced Ford as “immoral.” As Koch put it in his typically hyperbolic way: “We are a city surrounded by Mongol hordes, and I look out the window and the faces aren’t those of barbarians; they are those of the White House.”
As mayor, Koch gave Ford’s successor a tough time as well. Jimmy Carter’s policies toward Israel were unpopular in America’s most Jewish city and with that city’s Jewish mayor. Koch criticized Carter on Israel so often that the president, pulling the mayor aside, once told him: “You have done me more damage than any man in America.” When Carter ran for reelection in 1980, Koch’s on-again, off-again support for his fellow Democrat tormented the Carter team. One of Carter’s aides told Koch that his thinking was of greater interest to Washington insiders than that of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. In the end, Koch nominally backed Carter but also made it clear that his opponent, Ronald Reagan, wouldn’t be so bad. He invited Reagan to a courtesy visit at Gracie Mansion and even praised Reagan during the campaign at a time when the Democrats were trying to demonize him (see “The Last Sane Liberal,” Winter 2012).
Another New York–related aspect of the 1980 race involved the South Bronx. In 1977, Carter had visited the Bronx’s Charlotte Street and blamed the borough’s blight on one of his predecessors, asking his secretary of housing and urban development a leading question: “Most of this occurred in the last five years after Nixon cut off the urban renewal funds?” During the 1980 campaign, Reagan employed much the same tactic and visited the Bronx, which was little improved from the days of Carter’s 1977 trip. Reagan said that he had not “seen anything that looked like this since London after the Blitz.” Thanks in part to Koch and to the Bronx imagery, Reagan won New York, a Republican feat hard to imagine today.
Reagan held little natural affection for New York; during the 1975 budget crisis, he had said, “My sympathy is not of the greatest in regard to New York City.” But on a March 1981 visit to New York, the newly elected president announced that he was unfreezing funding for two city development projects important to Koch. The mayor, for his part, told reporters at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel: “I’m not here to defend Ronald Reagan, but I’ll tell you I like him. He’s a man of character.” A White House aide in the back of the room asked a reporter: “Three guesses who we help more, Koch or Hatcher?” He was referring to Richard Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, who had recently attacked Reagan publicly over the president’s budget. The New York Times‘s Steven Weisman noted that “the White House officials were, in effect, commending Mr. Koch for his political acumen—a seeming recognition that deep cuts are inevitable and that soft words might be more effective in taking the sharp edge off their impact.”
President Reagan gave one of his finest speeches in New York. On July 3, 1986, he welcomed French president François Mitterrand, Chrysler president Lee Iacocca, and thousands of New Yorkers to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. The speech is best remembered for Reagan’s reference to America as a “shining city upon a hill,” an elaboration on John Winthrop’s formulation of “a city upon a hill,” which the Puritan leader drew from the Sermon on the Mount. Less noted is how New York–heavy the speech was, as when Reagan quoted Harry Truman: “I’ve never seen anything that looked so good as the Liberty Lady in New York Harbor.”
Reagan was the last Republican to carry New York in a presidential election. The state that had swung the balance in so many presidential contests has been solidly blue since 1988. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush’s reelection campaign was so sure that it would lose the Empire State that running mate Dan Quayle even called out New York as an example of failed liberal welfare policies. This movement of New York into the permanently blue column has damaged the previously vibrant relationship between presidents and America’s largest city. These days, presidential trips to New York seem artificial. Presidents still go there for the United Nations General Assembly, for example, but it always seems more like a foreign trip than like a visit to the Big Apple.
George W. Bush’s trips to New York following the 9/11 terror attacks were exceptions to that artificiality. When Bush visited Ground Zero for the first time, he was pressed to give impromptu remarks to the rescue workers gathered there. The president, who had not yet given an inspiring post-attack speech, joined a retired firefighter on the rubble and started to speak into a megaphone. At first, Bush wasn’t sure what to say, and a voice in the crowd shouted: “We can’t hear you!” The comment seemed to energize Bush, who replied: “Well, I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd loved it, and the chants of “USA! USA!” showed that the president had given the nation the inspiring moment it needed.
Another memorable post–9/11 moment came on October 30, 2001, when Bush visited Yankee Stadium to throw out the first ball in Game Three of the World Series between the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Security was tight, and Bush wore a bulky bulletproof vest under a dark blue Yankees jacket. While he was warming up his arm in the Yankee clubhouse, shortstop Derek Jeter approached and asked, “Hey, Mr. President, are you going to throw from the mound or from in front of it?” Given the restrictions of the vest, Bush thought he might throw from in front of the mound, an easier task, but Jeter didn’t think that was a good idea. “Throw from the mound,” he urged the president. “Or else they’ll boo you.” Bush agreed. Then Jeter added another suggestion: “But don’t bounce it.” Fortunately for Bush, he threw a solid strike. Later, he remembered that Jeter’s warning made him so nervous that “the baseball felt like a shot put.”
September 11, an extraordinary circumstance, merited multiple presidential visits to New York. But these days, the logistical challenges of getting a president to the city, which include security so extensive that it creates traffic nightmares, often make the trip more trouble than it’s worth. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, President Barack Obama offered to come to New York, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked him not to: “We would love to have him, but we’ve got lots of things to do.” Bloomberg stressed that he meant no disrespect; Obama visited New Jersey instead.
New York remains an occasional entertainment destination for American presidents, but most frequently, they use the city as a political cash machine, holding big-money fund-raisers there because of New York’s abundance of wealthy donors. Most of these visits are dull in-and-outs to the duplexes of hedge-fund moguls, though Obama has managed to capitalize on New York’s celebrity scene to raise money: he held a “Barack on Broadway” evening at the New Amsterdam Theatre with James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Stockard Channing, and Patti LuPone, and he appeared at a fund-raiser cohosted by Vogue‘s Anna Wintour and Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker.
If current trends continue, twenty-first-century stories of presidents and New York City will likely pale in comparison with the rich and varied tales of earlier eras. That’s a loss for New York, to be sure, and likely a loss for the presidents and the nation as well.