Surrounded by a group of Confederate veterans, President Theodore Roosevelt stood at a podium at the old North Carolina State Fairgrounds, located just across Hillsborough Street from NC State’s main campus, on Oct. 19, 1905, and called for the strengthening of railroad regulation.
“The extraordinary development of industrialism during the last half century has been due to several causes, but above all to the revolution in the methods of transportation and communication; that is, to steam and to electricity, to the railroad and the telegraph,” Roosevelt bellowed from the red, white and blue stage.
That speech was delivered less than a mile from where President Obama will deliver remarks on the economy on Wednesday.
First Presidential Visitor
Roosevelt’s cause was to regulate the increasingly large role private railroad companies had on the public tracks, capping their rates and ending the practice of giving away free passes to their biggest and most loyal customers. From the podium in Raleigh, Roosevelt called for a strengthened Interstate Commerce Commission, which came with the passage of the landmark Hepburn Act of 1906.
“Transport by water has wholly lost its old position of superiority over transport by land,” Roosevelt said. “The old laws and old customs which were adequate and proper to meet the old conditions need radical readjustment in order to meet these new conditions.
Roosevelt’s speech was the first by a sitting president within the shadow of NC State, but there has been a long line of presidential visits in the century that followed.
On the Campaign Trail
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a long-time friend of Raleigh newspaper publisher Josephus Daniels, gave the commencement address on May 26, 1913 while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson.
Later elected governor of New York, Roosevelt returned to the North Carolina State Fair on Oct. 25, 1932 during his first campaign for the presidency. Students at NC State were given the day off from classes to attend the campaign rally.
In May 1929, North Carolina governor O. Max Gardner – a former football and baseball player at NC State – traveled to Washington to invite President Herbert Hoover to attend NC State’s homecoming festivities in the fall.
While Gardner was disappointed that Hoover declined, it probably wasn’t a bad thing, since the Nov. 2 game against Davidson would have been just days after the stock market crash on Oct. 29, which was marginally worse for State College fans than the 13-0 loss to the Wildcats and the 1-8 season the Wolfpack suffered under Gus Tebell.
World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited his friend Col. John W. Harrelson – NC State’s sixth chief executive – on multiple occasions and attended the Home and Farm Week festivities in August 1947, before he was elected president.
FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, also came to Raleigh in 1948, starting with a trip to the State Fair, where he reviewed NC State’s ROTC cadets, followed by a procession down Hillsborough Street to the State Capitol, where he delivered an impassioned speech to dedicate the state’s memorial to its three presidents, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson.
Rising political star John F. Kennedy campaigned at Reynolds Coliseum on Sept. 17, 1960, six weeks before he was elected as the nation’s 35th president.
Lyndon B. Johnson was the first sitting president to speak at NC State, when he met up with his wife, Lady Bird, who was in the middle of a whistle-stop campaign tour of the South, just months after her husband signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Accompanied by NC State graduate William Friday, president of the UNC System, Johnson warned an agricultural-minded crowd of some 14,000 that his opponent, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, would cut farm subsidies.
School officials had expected dissent at the open campaign rally. Even though Technician called the event a “hootenanny,” protesters were few. The several hundred students who gathered outside of Reynolds were generally there to support the president.
Richard Nixon never visited NC State, but his vice president, Spiro Agnew, held a campaign rally in Reynolds Coliseum. He was greeted by a large sign hanging over the balcony that read “Spiro is our hero,” courtesy of the 8,000 supporters on hand.
On a sweltering Sept. 5, 1985, Ronald Reagan gave a major speech at Reynolds, promising to lower taxes on 58 percent of Americans and to simplify tax brackets. With 15,000 students and supporters on hand in the arena – which lacks air conditioning – Reagan had to ditch his jacket before he could proceed with his speech.
Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, visited NC State on Feb. 2, 1990, but it wasn’t for a policy speech. His private tour included a trip to the physics labs in Cox Hall and a roundtable discussion with executives of five top U.S. microelectronics firms.
It was actually Bush’s second trip to State’s campus – he also faced the Wolfpack on the baseball field as Yale’s first baseman in April 1948. “The husky first-sacker,” as The News and Observer described him, had a good day, collecting a single, double and triple in Yale’s 9-6 win.
Jimmy Carter came to NC State in February 1991, well after he left the White House, to speak at the sixth-annual Emerging Issues Forum. He spoke in front of a crowd of 1,300 people at the McKimmon Center, raising questions about the U.S. invasion of Kuwait and calling for an international peace conference to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Persuader in Chief
Bill Clinton made several stops at NC State, first as a keynote speaker at the 1988 Emerging Issues Forum while still serving as governor of Arkansas. As a presidential candidate in 1992, he addressed about 600 students at Stewart Theatre. He returned on Jan. 26, 2009 to deliver the annual Harrelson Lecture in the Millennium Speaker Series at Reynolds in front of a student, staff and faculty crowd of 8,000.
Obama and his wife Michelle have appeared twice previously at NC State. On May 6, 2008, Obama essentially secured the Democratic nomination for president when he overwhelmingly defeated Hilary Clinton in the North Carolina primary.
It was a particularly emotional moment for Obama’s communications director and close advisor, Robert Gibbs, a former NC State soccer player who earned a political science degree in 1993 and spent one semester as a graduate assistant in the soccer program.
“I can’t tell you how amazing it was, that night, to be there in a special place where I spent so much time during college,” Gibbs said. “It was the perfect setting.”
Obama returned on Sept. 14, 2011, in a campaign-style rally to promote his American Jobs Act.
From Roosevelt to Obama, multiple leaders of the free world have visited NC State, where the red on the banners was always just a little brighter than the white and the blue.