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The history of presidential visits in Portland: From Kennedy to Biden

The Pacific Northwest doesn't get presidential attention like other areas of the country these days, but visits to Portland have happened on occasion.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The White House announced last week that President Joe Biden will visit Portland on Thursday in order to stump for infrastructure investments contained in a $1 trillion bipartisan bill that he signed into law in November.

Biden's visit marks a relatively rare presidential appearance in Portland, and Biden's first as commander-in-chief.

When politicians hit the campaign trail, they tend to skip the Pacific Northwest entirely — heading instead to the bellwether and battleground states more common in America's "heartland;" states with greater electoral caché.

"When they weigh all of the different places that they can go, they want to get to places where they think that they can … where the outcome of an upcoming election or an upcoming set of issues are in doubt," said political analyst Len Bergstein.

Regardless, Portland has played host to presidents in the past — Biden's is just the latest in a long line of visits, not all of them happy. 

Presidential visits still carry a great deal of significance, in Bergstein's opinion. There's a certain pageantry that extends from the touchdown of Air Force One, to the speeches, the crowds, the fanfare — and even the protests.

"I think that people do love to show up at those kinds of things and see it," said Bergstein. "There's still a certain majesty about the president — and being one of the most powerful people in the world — kind of visiting our state to talk about our issues."

Biden is set to talk about infrastructure issues and solutions on Thursday in Portland before heading north to Seattle to discuss the clean energy economy. Bergstein sees Oregon as a setting where presidents can discuss "substantive issues."

"The west is particularly a nice place for him to come talk about that because whether it's roads, ports, bridges or broadband," Bergstein said, "there are a whole bunch of infrastructure issues but I think that he could talk to that would make sense to Oregonians "

In a similar vein to Biden's upcoming visit, Bergstein said that past visits from former presidents Obama and Clinton come to mind.

"Obama visited Nike and Intel in various different techniques," Bergstein said. "Clinton came out to talk ... I remember very specifically, they organized a full-day summit on timber issues."

Oregon, and Portland in particular, have also been the backdrop of passionate protests, as George H.W. Bush and his administration found in the early '90s.

"People in Oregon care an awful lot about issues — there's no doubt about that," said Bergstein. "Bush and Quayle were obviously the focus of things that led them to think of Portland as 'Little Beirut.'"

In many cases, Bergstein said, Republican presidents have chosen to avoid Portland in favor of Oregon cities where they can expect a better reception, like Medford or Pendleton — but that seems to have developed only after the elder Bush's miserable experience.

John F. Kennedy

According to the Oregon Historical Society, Kennedy was a frequent visitor in Oregon, even serving as the grand marshal of the Medford Pear Blossom Parade and throwing out the first ball at a Little League game in The Dalles.

In 1960, while running against Richard Nixon, Kennedy delivered a speech at the Multnomah Hotel in Portland — addressing, primarily, the issue of labor unions and jobs.

"Last year we had the lowest rate of economic growth of any major industrialized society in the world," Kennedy said in his address. "1,500,000 people will come into the labor movement every year in the 1960s and are going to have to find a job, and they come into the labor market at the very same time when automation is revolutionizing employment. You have seen it in your own city of Portland here.

"Therefore, to find work for these people, to make sure that machines make life easier, instead of displacing men and women, I think it is going to be a basic domestic problem for the next administration, regardless of whether it is Republican or Democrat. This is a serious problem that faces us all. It affects you directly. You live with it. But only by developing economic policies which encourage the growth of the United States can we hope to maintain full employment in the United States."

Richard Nixon

Nixon stopped in Oregon during both his 1960 and 1968 campaigns, according to contemporary news reports, and not just in the rural areas of the state. In 1960, he delivered a speech at the newly-constructed Lloyd Center Mall — speaking primarily about touting and projecting U.S. strength while maintaining peace.

"They say the United States has stood still over the last 7½ years. Anybody who has said that hasn't been traveling around the United States," Nixon said. "If you think the United States has stood still, who built the largest shopping center in the world, the Lloyd Shopping Center right here?"

Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson visited Portland to talk about a topic reminiscent of Biden's this coming week — infrastructure. He was talking about the establishment of the Northwest-Southwest Power Transmission Intertie, a network of transmission lines that allowed hydroelectric power generated on the Columbia River to flow down into California.

"In 1844 a fiery young orator warned, 'Make way for the young American buffalo. We will give him Oregon for his summer shade and the region of Texas for his winter pasture.' Well, it is wonderful to be here in Oregon with you this morning. But I want it distinctly understood I am not ready for any Texas pasture," Johnson said in his address.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan stopped in Portland during his re-election campaign in 1984, speaking at the University of Portland. While Reagan spoke to a rapt audience inside, The Oregonian reports that he was briefly interrupted by someone in the crowd shouting "liar, liar, pants on fire" — an incident that arguably proved more disruptive than the group of protesters outside.

Regardless, Reagan's speech began with his characteristic confidence and humor:

"I feel very much at home here, partly because during the Republican convention, one of your State officials offered to change the name of your State to 'Oreagan.'

"But I'm told that your city has had an interesting history with regard to names; that when the first settlers came here from the East, they saw its possibilities as a beautiful port. They cleared the area around here, cut down the trees, and made a tomahawk claim of the area. And then they chose to call it their own. And one of the main settlers insisted the city be called Boston. Another insisted it be called Portland, after Portland, Maine. And they settled it in a very gentlemanly manner. They flipped a coin. And so, Portland was born."

George H.W. Bush

The elder Bush made a number of visits to Oregon in the '80s and '90s, but both the president and First Lady Barbara Bush became the targets of significant backlash in later visits to Portland. Protesters, spearheaded by an anarchist group, expressed their displeasure with the administration through vocal demonstrations punctuated by vandalism, all while dogged by police. Bush reportedly started referring to the city as "Little Beirut."

Bush received a much more friendly reception in Medford when he visited in 1992 to talk about the timber industry.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was all over Oregon while campaigning for his wife's presidential bid in 2016, but he made two appearances at Portland State University during his presidency in the 1990s. According to Portland State Magazine, he's the only sitting president to speak at the school. In 1998, Clinton delivered a speech for PSU's commencement ceremony.

Like Bergstein said, Clinton also visited Oregon in 1993 in a bid to solve a problem in the state that has never truly gone away — balancing the need for environmental conservation while preserving the state's timber industry jobs.

George W. Bush

While Portland did not feature as infamously for George W. Bush as it did his father, the younger Bush's visit to Portland to deliver a speech at a fundraiser also drew protests and occasional clashes. The Associated Press reported in 2002 that the violent demonstrations "caught White House planners by surprise."

However, like Reagan, Bush spoke at the University of Portland to a supportive crowd and plentiful rounds of applause.

"I want to thank so very much the leadership of the University of Portland for opening up this beautiful campus. But most of all I want to thank you all for coming — I'm proud to have you as supporters," he said in a speech. "I'm proud that we're on the same team, working hard to do what's right for America. See I ran for office to solve problems not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations."

Barack Obama

Obama made a number of visits to Portland during his presidency, including the visit to Intel in 2011. Like Biden now, Obama was there to talk about investments his administration had made, particularly in education.

In 2015, Obama spoke at the Nike campus in Beaverton, delivering remarks on U.S. trade relations.

"Before I came out here, I had a chance to meet with some small business owners from across Oregon, whose workers make everything from bikes to tea to stationery to wine," Obama said. "And they know how important this is to them.

"Sometimes when we talk about trade, we think of Nike, or we think of Boeing, or we think of G.E. — we think about these big multinational companies. But those small business leaders came here today because they understood that these markets outside the United States will help them grow, and will help them hire more folks — just as all the suppliers to Nike or Boeing or G.E. or any of these other companies understand this is going to be critical to their growth and their ability to create new jobs."

President Barack Obama arrives at the Portland Air Guard Base, in Portland, Ore., Feb. 18. Before boarding Marine One, Obama paused to shake hands with members of the 142nd Fighter Wing who were on hand to welcome the President to Oregon. The President headed to Intel Corporation in Hillsboro to discuss manufacturing for science and technology with employees and community leaders. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office).

Donald Trump

Both during his 2016 campaign and while in office, Trump steered clear of Portland. Plans for an August 2016 fundraiser in Portland fell apart. He did, however, hold a rally in Eugene and reportedly paid the City of Portland for police officers to provide security.

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