That was Lawrence: Presidential visits and campaigning

Stephen Nordin

Through the tremendous effort of the University administration and student organizers, we have had two high-profile political visits over the past year. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke in the Stansbury Theater March 30, and First Lady Michelle Obama headed an impressive campaign event last Friday.

While Lawrence’s central location in the Fox Valley makes it a politically-vital locale for stumping during the 2012 campaign, the most recent visits are part of a long tradition that stretches back for over a century.

The 31 October 1911 issue of The Lawrentian proudly announced that “for the first time in the history of the College has the nation’s chief executive addressed the students and citizens of Appleton in the shades of the historic Main Hall.”

That chief executive was “Big Bill” himself — President William Howard Taft.

Taft was presented with a bundle of roses and was introduced by Dr. Samuel Plantz, the President of Lawrence, in front of ten thousand community members.

Following praise for the developing cities of the Midwest, Taft focused on policy in his speech. He discussed trade agreements with Canada concerning the paper industry — a vital issue for Appleton — and recent treaties of peace with Great Britain and France.

He concluded: “And I look to you, especially to your younger people, to feel a sense of responsibility not only to your own country, but with your power and intelligence and opportunities, a sense of duty which will impel you to advance the highest ideals of Christian civilization throughout the world.”

Not all visits to Lawrence have been viewed as successes. At a 21 March 1944 special convocation, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie asserted in a short speech that liberal arts graduates help prevent “power-loving figures from dominating the state institutions.”

This was an attack leveled at then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Willkie’s opponent seeking re-election to a fourth term.

The Lawrentian asserted that Willkie “appeared a bit tired and seemed to be suffering from a rather serious cold” and “allowed little or no time for an interview.”

Willkie’s lackluster performance was not warmly received by the student body who “very freely” criticized his speech “for failure to mention anything significant in regard to international relations or his political platform.” This may have been unfair, as the college administration urged Willkie to give a “non-political speech,” as he was stumping at an Appleton hotel after Lawrence.

Two Lawrentian reporters, seeking more substance for their column, pursued Willkie until “politely but firmly he expressed the desire [they] betake [themselves] elsewhere — anywhere!”

On 13 November 1959, Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon answered questions posed by a panel of five Lawrentians and three community members in the Chapel.

Playing to his audience, Nixon urged alumni to remember that liberal arts colleges could not rely on tuition alone. ***The Lawrentian*** reported that “President Douglas Knight, seated on Nixon’s left on the stage, smiled and nodded at this remark, obviously seconding the thought.”

Nixon displayed his trademark grasp on world politics, urging continued foreign aid to countries adjoining the communist bloc. He also asserted that “the United Nations would lose a great deal of its moral standing in the world if Red China were admitted under the standards they display.”

Of course, this occurred despite US resistance when Nixon was President in 1971. In fact, one of his best-know legacies is the opening of relations with Communist China.

According to The Lawrentian “the Vice-President drew applause and laughter throughout the discussion. He remained standing the entire time; punctuating his remarks with elaborate hand gestures. The standing-room only crowd gave him a standing ovation as he arrived and left the chapel.”

His later opponent, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, also spoke at Lawrence while running for the Democratic nomination on 11 March 1960. Addressing a crowd of three hundred at the Union, Kennedy encouraged students to consider a career in politics.

Alluding to the later “Best and Brightest” — to use David Halberstam’s phrase — Kennedy asserted that his leadership style was to surround himself with “intellectual” advisors. He also told students that the now-famous Wisconsin Democratic primary of 1960 was vital — “as Wisconsin goes, so goes the Democratic convention.”

Kennedy carried the state with 56% of the vote.

Since 1960, Lawrence has seen ten campaigns for President swing through Appleton, including those of arch-segregationist George Wallace, George Herbert Walker Bush and John Kerry.

The 1944 editorial asserted that “Lawrentians have been clamoring for a guest speaker of nation-wide, or even better, world-wide reputation.” As long as the circumstances of national campaigning make Appleton a key piece of the partisan puzzle, Lawrence will continue attract such figures for another hundred years.