On the Susquehanna

A POTUS

April 20, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The POTUS is coming to Havre de Grace tomorrow, or so we've been told, and we're all studying up on presidential etiquette so as not to look like bumpkins on national television.

The POTUS is what the Secret Service and other insiders call the President of the United States, and so we've been practicing referring to him that way, too. Presumably the First Lady is the FLOTUS. It isn't known if he's bringing her along, but of course she'd be welcome, too.

If President Clinton does visit here, he'll be the first POTUS in town since the beginning of what we consider the Modern Era. In Havre de Grace that dates from either 1866, when the first bridge across the Susquehanna opened, or from 1878, when the legislature formally designated Havre de Grace a city.

A former POTUS, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke here on the steps of City Hall in 1912, when he was running for president again on the Bull Moose ticket. A local man who was there, as a teen-ager, told me a few years ago that Mayor Walter Weber's introduction of the illustrious visitor was so long and tedious that Mr. Roosevelt eventually reached up and pulled him down, to the cheers of the crowd.

The loquacious Mayor Weber lost the next election by 67 votes to T. Milton Carroll. Mayor Carroll's son, T. Milton Carroll Jr., is still around. He drives a wonderful yellow Cadillac. But I digress.

John F. Kennedy came to the area as a candidate in 1960, and was nearby again in November 1963, a few days before his assassination, to dedicate the part of Interstate 95 now known as the Kennedy Highway. But as POTUS he never entered the city, and no POTUS since has come close.

In the old days, however, presidential visits were commonplace. The original POTUS, George Washington, came here often and frequently stayed at the local tavern before crossing the river by ferry. His journals record at least 30 such crossings. The next five POTUSes (why do I want to say POTI?), Messrs. Adams, Jefferson, Madison and J.Q. Adams, also passed through.

By about 1818, though, the roads and the ferry service had improved so much that you could get from Baltimore to Philadelphia in one day by post-chaise. That meant there was no reason for a POTUS, or any other important traveler, to spend the night in Havre de Grace any more.

Col. John Rodgers, who owned the tavern and the ferry in Washington's time, was both an astute businessman and a historically significant ancestor. Over several generations, nine of his descendants became admirals in the United States Navy. Perhaps out of respect for this seafaring family tradition, when the British burned the town to the ground in 1813, they spared the Rodgers house.

It isn't entirely clear why the incumbent POTUS is coming to Havre de Grace tomorrow. It may be because he's eager to meet Mayor Gunther Hirsch, or it may have something to do with Earth Day. Perhaps the POTUS will join those of us who plan to spend part of the day cleaning up one of the islands off the town where least terns have a nesting colony. Or he can admire counterfeit ducks at the Decoy Museum.

Politics are surely the farthest thing from his mind, but there is some local political history the POTUS ought to know before he visits. He may already be aware that Havre de Grace by tradition is a Democratic enclave in a Republican-leaning county, and that he himself was a victor at the polls here.

Since 1960, Harford County has voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election but one, the 1964 Johnson landslide. But during those years, with a couple of significant exceptions, Havre de Grace has been reliably although far from unanimously Democratic.

The exceptions occurred when the Democratic Pary nominated George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. These three were more than Havre de Grace could swallow. The city remembers with respect and admiration the way its most famous native son, conservative Democratic Senator Millard E. Tydings, stood firmly in opposition to Franklin Roosevelt's effort to pack the Supreme Court. There are limits to party loyalty, after all.

Our current POTUS carried Havre de Grace in 1992 by 360 votes while losing Harford County to George Bush by 9,186. (He had a little help from Ross Perot, whose 670 votes in Havre de Grace and 17,002 in the county overall were probably at Mr. Bush's expense.)

As victories for Democrats go around here in presidential elections, 360 votes was a fairly solid win. The last Democrat to carry the city by that much was Lyndon Johnson, who won by 852 votes. Mr. Kennedy's margin in Havre de Grace in 1960 was 105 votes, Hubert Humphrey's in 1968 was 118, and Jimmy Carter's were 102 in 1976 and 155 in 1980.

So the POTUS -- and the FLOTUS -- ought to feel very comfortable visiting us here. The food's good, the river's pretty, and the demographics are non-threatening. We look forward to meeting them. And if the long-winded POTUS would like to make a speech in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition, Mayor Hirsch would be glad to give him an appropriate introduction.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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