by Steve Desroches
The 1942 comedy George Washington Slept Here follows two New Yorkers who buy a dilapidated farmhouse in Pennsylvania. As they struggle to renovate, they hope that the rumor that President Washington once spent the night there might help them raise the money to save their new home in this fish out of water film. Since the very beginning of the American presidency, the travels of whoever has held the office have been documented. It’s a badge of historical honor and sign of relevance to have a president visit and Provincetown’s past is full of presidential visits, as well as some surprising connections to some of the men who have occupied the White House.
The appearances by President Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in association with events regarding the Pilgrim Monument are well known and documented in Provincetown’s history, but the first sitting president documented to have visited the Cape tip was Ulysses S. Grant. In 1873 President Grant was among the dignitaries aboard the train to celebrate the completion of the Cape Cod Central Railroad linking Boston and Provincetown. A grand banquet was held that night in the old Town Hall (which was atop High Pole Hill where the Pilgrim Monument is now.) Grant was the first president to make Cape Cod a vacation destination while not at the White House. President Grover Cleveland also loved the Cape and maintained a summer home in Bourne. At the time, inaugurations were held in March, so when Cleveland took the train to Provincetown in the summer of 1889 he was no longer the president, as he was in between his two non-consecutive terms. So, Provincetown has had only three sitting presidents to visit.
The Pilgrim Monument is clearly an impressive icon of Provincetown and beloved beacon, but it is also of national importance. Teddy Roosevelt arrived with much pomp and circumstance in 1908 to celebrate the laying of the corner stone. A grand event, Roosevelt used the occasion to give a major speech garnering nationwide press coverage. The nation was in economic turmoil after the “Panic of 1907,” when the New York Stock Exchange fell by almost 50 percent causing a run on banks and trust companies. Roosevelt laid the blame on those that ran these financial organizations calling them “malefactors of great wealth.”
The situation in 1908 sounds painfully familiar in 2012. And like now, it was an election year when Roosevelt gave that speech. Though eligible to run again, he chose to step aside and support his eventual successor William Howard Taft, whom Roosevelt felt was a “true Progressive.” However, not long after Taft took office Roosevelt became a vocal critic of his policies causing a schism in the Republican Party and making the two men rivals. Roosevelt eventually began to run against Taft, this time as a member of the Progressive Party, in the election of 1912. That friction, in part, is why Taft came to Provincetown. First Lady Helen “Nellie” Taft was a formidable political force herself, heavily involved in developing policy and her husband’s campaign and presidency until her stroke shortly after he took office. When the Tafts received an invitation to attend the dedication ceremony of the Pilgrim Monument, Nellie encouraged her husband to accept.
“She is aware that Roosevelt was there to lay the cornerstone,” said Carl Anthony of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio and author of Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era in a Cape Cod Times story about his 2005 reading at the Monument “Nellie decides, not only should the president participate in the full day of activities in Provincetown. But that she is going to make this her first appearance, because she is determined that Roosevelt is a threat and is after Taft, and she wants it out there that she is back in the game.”
While Mrs. Taft felt a Provincetown visit was politically beneficial, that view changed with time. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy loved Provincetown. And her husband, as well as many members of the Kennedy family, has visited over the years. But during the 1960 campaign, despite deep ties to Cape Cod, Provincetown was a no go.
“Jack didn’t think a trip was a good idea now,” said Mrs. Kennedy to a reporter in Hyannisport in 1960.
Presidential snubs are also peppered throughout the town’s history. The Pilgrim Monument invited President George W. Bush to the centennial of the laying of the cornerstone in 2008, and President Obama for the celebration in 2010. Neither came. But the first case of presidential visit disappointment came in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt was scheduled to visit Provincetown. He was sailing the New England coast on his way to Nova Scotia aboard his yacht the Amberjack II. But poor weather forced him to bypass Provincetown on his way to Gloucester.
It is a little known fact that Provincetown can claim a president as a former resident. In 1950, the future President Jimmy Carter was stationed in town while serving in the Navy. Though only in town a year, the topic became an icebreaker when Norman Mailer interviewed Carter during the campaign of 1976. And First Lady Rosalyn Carter recalled the town fondly in her memoir First Lady from Plains: “We rented an upstairs apartment in a big old house, and there the children and I could sit at the breakfast room table and watch the submarine operate and dive just off shore. In the winter I found the town library and finally got around to reading War and Peace. And we bought the boys their first sleds even though they had to compete with us to use them.”
Art is never far in any telling of Provincetown history, and in this case there are many Ptown artists who were asked to paint official portraits of past presidents, including Jerry Farnsworth who painted Harry Truman, Elaine de Kooning who painted Kennedy, William H. W. Bicknell who painted FDR, and Ross Moffett, whose murals of Dwight Eisenhower hang in the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.
More recently, Vice President Joe Biden’s fundraising stop here on behalf of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign this past August was certainly the biggest event related to the Executive Branch in Provincetown in quite sometime. But former Vermont Governor Howard Dean was the first major candidate for the presidency to campaign in Provincetown when he came in 2003 for a fundraiser when he was still red-hot and it looked like he might take the Democratic nomination. Former Vice President Al Gore has also visited both while in office and since. Former 2004 presidential candidate Senator John Kerry visits frequently, as did Ted Kennedy, who ran in 1980. And in the realm of Presidential scandals, Monica Lewinsky vacationed with friends here one summer, making news in the tabloids as well as Vanity Fair.