Presidential visits have been brief here

historic politics


Greenville hasn't spent much time in the presidential limelight. It was too poor, too small, too distant, too Southern and too solidly Democratic to rate national political attention until the 1960s. Since then, jet planes, super-charged campaigning and increased prosperity have brought wayfaring Republicans and a (very) few hardy Democrats to the city.

Yet we have had ever-so-brief encounters with the nation's highest office even before the White House announced that President George W. Bush would make the May 2008 commencement address at Furman University.

In the early 1820s, for example, future president Andrew Johnson, then a tailor's apprentice in Laurens, set up shop in the village. He remained for less than a year before traveling on to Greeneville, Tenn., where he eventually made his home. Forty years later, the Reconstruction president must have remembered his experiences here, since, when he appointed Benjamin Perry interim governor of the state in June 1865, he approvingly recalled the unionist editor and attorney from his earlier sojourn.

Seventy years after Johnson's tailoring shop closed, President Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat elected to the presidency after the Civil War, made an even quicker visit. Greenville's most fashionable leaders turned out in resplendent finery to salute the president during a train stopover. (Republicans, who held the office uninterruptedly from 1860 to 1912, except for Cleveland, didn't bother to say hello.)

The county was still well affixed to the Democratic Party when a minor member of President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet came to town immediately after World War I to tout the League of Nations. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the Greenville Rotary Club in the winter of 1919 as part of Wilson's campaign for the League. His speech did not make national headlines.

The next time that the city turned out for the man who would be elected to four terms in the White House was after his death. On April 13, 1945, the dead president's funeral train chugged slowly through Greenville on its way from Warm Springs, Ga., transporting the casket of the 32nd president to Washington, D.C. National Guardsmen lined the tracks as the black-draped train stopped for half an hour at the Southern Railway Station on West Washington Street before continuing its progress north while thousands of people lined its tracks through the county.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to campaign in the South, although he didn't made it to Greenville.

But in 1961, Richard Nixon, his former vice president defeated in the previous year's election by John F. Kennedy, was an overnight guest at White Oaks, Charlie Daniel's mansion, now the home of Furman's presidents. (The red bedroom where he slept is still pointed out to guests). Jimmy Carter campaigned here (the last time that South Carolina went Democratic), and in 1980, President Ronald Reagan sought the blessing of Bob Jones Jr. and the votes of his fundamentalist Christian university when he ran for the presidency. He returned several years later to speak at Greenville Tech.

But it is the Bush connection with Greenville that is the most longstanding. In June 1932, when Billie Gray Martin, an attractive 20-year-old graduate of the Greenville Woman's College, received her B.A. in absentia (her father picked up her diploma), she was already at Yale pursuing an M.F.A. in art. (A biographical Web site says she graduated from Furman, but it says, too, that she was a native of "Greenview," S.C.) The local girl, who had graduated from Greenville High School, had been an active and involved undergraduate, editor-in-chief and art editor of the Entre Nous, the college yearbook, a sorority member and a feature writer. Twenty years later, she had become Willa Martin Pierce, an artist, Associated Press illustrator and writer, and Barbara Bush's stepmother. Her 1952 marriage to Marvin Pierce, publisher of McCall's Magazine, was celebrated here; Barbara Bush was among the guests.

That admittedly tenuous Greenville distaff link is paralleled by a business one. The "W" in both the current president's name and his father's stands for Walker, as in Ely & Walker, wholesale dry goods merchants and apparel manufacturers who owned Poe Mill from 1947 to 1955, when they sold it to Burlington Industries. George Herbert Walker, the son of the company's founder, later became a New York financier; his daughter, Dorothy, married Prescott Bush, the current president's grandfather. Some of the city's textile profits found their way into Bush pockets.

And then there's the link with President George H. W. Bush, who spoke (almost) at Furman's commencement in 1983, when he was vice-president. Actually, although he was a guest for the weekend and was awarded a honorary Doctor of Laws degree, he spoke at a special convocation on the Friday evening before the Saturday ceremony.

Although I was present, all I remember about the event was the security -- lots of it, including metal detectors at every entrance to McAlister Auditorium -- and the fact that the public address system failed mid-way through his speech on Central American politics.

Arranged by Gov. (and Furman alumnus) Mark Sanford at the request of the White House, George W. Bush's commencement address at Furman in May 2008 marked the first time that a sitting president has spoken at the school.

Judith Bainbridge