American Presidents and New York City: A Cultural History

President Obama will be in New York this month for the UN General Assembly, marking what has become a relatively

United Nations headquarters. (Photo: Getty Images)
United Nations headquarters. (Photo by Getty Images)

President Obama will be in New York this month for the UN General Assembly, marking what has become a relatively rare presidential visit to the nation’s biggest city. In the last election campaign, for example, Mitt Romney and Obama were campaigning in just 10 states, and New York was not among them. When the candidates did visit New York City, it was to use the city as an ATM for their relentless fundraising efforts.

There was a time, however, before the incredible transmogrification of the U.S. electoral map into strongholds of red and blue, that New York was far more contested. Throughout much of the 19th century, New York had the largest number of electoral votes, giving it the potential to swing many an election. Consequently, presidential candidates often made it their business to visit New York City.

In 1819, for example, five years before his close-but-no-cigar first presidential run, Andrew Jackson saw a production of the comic opera The Poor Soldier in New York.  Whenever the show’s actors made a reference to the visiting general, Jackson received loud cheers from the crowd. In February of 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave an important speech at New York’s Cooper Union before 1,500 people. In the speech — about which Isaac Arnold wrote, “probably did more to secure his nomination, than any other act of his life” — Lincoln laid out his views that slavery was wrong, and linked his opposition to slavery’s expansion to the views of the Founding Fathers. On the same trip, Lincoln also sat for what became a famous portrait taken by the photographer Matthew Brady.

Dwight Eisenhower. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Dwight Eisenhower. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

In the 20th century, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon both lived in New York in the years before becoming president. In Ike’s case, he served as president of Columbia University, but he felt unsafe walking the streets of Morningside Heights.  He used to carry his service revolver with him for protection, and would not walk around at night without it. For his part, Nixon worked at a law firm during his New York years, where he experienced a bit of a cultural awakening. He read more, attended classical music performances, and went to the theater regularly. Nixon and Len Garment would also play music together, Garment on the clarinet and Nixon the piano, at Garment’s place in Brooklyn.

The best-known intersection of New York and presidential politics in history came in the form of an infamous newspaper headline. On October 29, 1975, with New York in the midst of a financial crisis, Gerald Ford announced that he would not help bail out a bankrupt New York City. Although The Daily News’ immortal next day headline read “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” the truth is more complicated. Ford held no animus toward New York City, and had always liked spending time there while he was a student at Yale Law School. Furthermore, New York Mayor Abe Beame agreed to spending cuts, and Ford signed a law bailing out New York two months later. New York ended up repaying all of the loans, with interest.

Ronald Reagan gave one of his most famous and best speeches in New York, at the Statue of Liberty, where he referred to America as a “shining city upon a hill.” Reagan, however, was the last Republican to carry New York State in a presidential election. The state that had swung the balance in so many presidential elections in the past has voted solidly Democratic since 1988.

Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)
Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images)

This movement of New York into the permanently blue column has, sadly, affected the previously vibrant relationship between presidents and America’s largest city. Presidents still go to New York for the General Assembly, but it seems more of a foreign trip these days, filled with meetings with leaders of other countries.

Another current impetus for presidential trips to New York is in cases of disaster, and subsequent milestones marking the disaster. We saw this most prominently with President George W. Bush’s trips to New York following the 9/11 terror attacks. But the logistical challenges of getting a president to New York, which include intense security as well as traffic standstills, often mean that the trip is more trouble than it is worth. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, a disaster that would ordinarily have merited a presidential trip, Obama offered to come to New York, but Mayor Bloomberg rebuffed the idea, saying “We would love to have him, but we‘ve got lots of things to do.” Mr. Bloomberg stressed that this was not a “diss.” Obama visited New Jersey instead.

Of course, presidents of both parties still use the city as a political cash machine, holding large dollar fundraisers there because of New York’s preponderance of wealthy individuals of both parties. Most of these visits are dull in-and-outs to the duplexes of hedge-fund moguls. If current trends continue, the twenty-first century stories of presidents and New York City will likely pale before the rich and varied tales of presidents from earlier eras and their sojourns in America’s greatest city. This is a loss for New York to be sure, but also for the presidents – and the nation – as well.

Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Tevi Troy is the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. A version of this piece originally ran in City Journal. American Presidents and New York City: A Cultural History