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Presidential Visits to Arkansas

041118-F-O6229-080.LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- (From left) Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush, Laura Bush, President George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter pose for the media after the William J. Clinton Presidential Library opening ceremonies. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bob Oldham).

Since Arkansas achieved statehood in 1836, the state has enjoyed visits from many sitting presidents. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Arkansas for the state’s centennial celebration in 1936. The state has seen many more presidential visits through nearly two centuries of statehood.

Harry Truman

President Truman at the dedication of Bull Shoals dam in 1951. Photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

President Harry Truman visited Arkansas many times during his term and a half in office (Truman served out half of Roosevelt’s fourth term when the President died in 1945). Truman’s visits focused on supporting new infrastructure in the state as well as campaigning. During his first visit to Little Rock in April of 1948, he spoke at a Democratic party rally, but he also made time to stop at Hot Springs National Park. He returned to Arkansas twice more in 1948, the first time as the commencement speaker at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He followed this with another trip to Hot Springs in August to speak to state and local politicians. Truman already had history with the city of Hot Springs. In 1937, he sought treatment for myocarditis at the Army and Navy General Hospital in Hot Springs. During his presidential visits, he stayed at the Arlington Hotel and enjoyed the thermal baths. Truman would return to Hot Springs even after his presidency ended.

Truman’s next few visits were for the dedications of new infrastructure. In 1949, he spoke at the dedications for two flood control projects: the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County levee and the El Dorado Lock and Dam. These were both products of Truman’s emphasis on building better infrastructure across the United States to stimulate the economy and bring added safety to the area. He also dedicated War Memorial Park on June 10, 1949, and held a President’s Ball at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock.  In 1951, he returned to the state to dedicate Bull Shoals Dam. In his speech, Truman continued to push for more dams and flood control in the state.

John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy arrives at Fort Smith airport in 1961. Photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

President Kennedy made two visits to Arkansas during his presidency. His first trip lasted no more than 20 minutes. Kennedy flew into Fort Smith on Oct. 29, 1961, landing at Fort Smith airport in a Boeing 707. A crowd of Arkansans and likely Oklahomans began gathering at dawn to greet the president. By noon, the crowd measured 15,000 people. When Kennedy landed shortly before 1 p.m., Governor Orval Faubus, Fort Smith Mayor Robert Brooksher, and Senators J.W. Fulbright and John McClellan greeted him. Kennedy spoke to the crowd for less than five minutes, but in that time, he stressed the importance of Fort Chaffee to the nation’s defense and accepted the deed to 10 acres of the old fort, which had recently been declared a national historic site. The president then flew in a helicopter to Big Cedar, Oklahoma, for the dedication of state highway Oklahoma 103, which runs through the Ouachita National Forest.

Kennedy’s second visit came on Oct. 3, 1963, just over one month before the president was assassinated. He visited Heber Springs to dedicate the newly completed Greers Ferry Dam. It was his last major public appearance before his death, and he spoke of how important Arkansas was, referring to the Titan Missile bases, the power of the Arkansas delegation to Congress with Senators Fulbright and McClellan, and that the new dam and Greers Ferry lake would be a boon to the state’s economy.

Richard Nixon

President Nixon watches the Arkansas-Texas game at Razorback Stadium in 1969. Photo courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. 

President Richard Nixon’s only visit to the state caused quite a stir. He attended what has been called the “Game of the Century” when #1 Texas played #2 Arkansas at the University of Arkansas in college football’s final. The game took place on Dec. 6, 1969. Nixon arrived by helicopter from Fort Smith, where Airforce One landed since Fayetteville’s Drake Field was too small to receive the president’s plane. Nixon missed the kickoff, arriving late, but he sat in the stands, then moved to the broadcast booth at halftime to give an interview with ABC. Over half of television viewers in the U.S. tuned into the game that day. Arkansas lost 15-14 when Texas scored a touchdown late in the game. Nixon presented Texas with a plaque that named them the #1 football team in the 100th year of college football. He also visited the Arkansas locker room to console the losing team.

Bill Clinton

Presidents Bush Sr., Bush Jr., Clinton and Carter at the dedication for the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in 2004.

President Bill Clinton, of course, has a different history with the state as the only president elected from the state of Arkansas. His visits are too numerous to list, but one particular visit has special importance. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock was dedicated on Nov. 18, 2004, with 30,000 people in attendance, including President George W. Bush and past presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. President Bush gave a speech at the event, praising Clinton’s efforts to mediate peace in the Middle East and his efforts to stamp out poverty. President Clinton also spoke, saying, “The thing I want most is for people who come to this library, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, to see that public service is noble and important, that the choices and decisions leaders make affect the lives of millions of Americans and people all across the world.”

Other presidents visited Arkansas during their presidencies, and many have visited the state after. Jimmy Carter often came for duck hunting, Ulysses Grant visited as part of a world tour after his presidency ended, and many others stopped by the state for campaign and political rallies. President Barack Obama toured the tornado damage that occurred after an EF4 tornado hit the state on April 27, 2014.

Each presidential visit carried different goals and provided the opportunity for Arkansans to connect with the leaders of the United States and visiting presidents to see all that Arkansas has to offer.

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Kimberly S. Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has hiked the Inca Trail, walked into Panama on a rickety wooden bridge and once missed the last train of the night in Paris and walked several miles home (with friends). She believes magic can be found in life and books, loves to watch the stars appear, and still dreams of backpacking the world. Now she writes adventures to send her characters on journeys, too. Pen & Quin: International Agents of Intrigue - The Mystery of the Painted Book is her debut novel. Find out more at KSMitchell.com.

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