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We’ll Always Have POTUS
Tom Clavin | Photo: Photoquest/Getty Images/AP Photo | January 8, 2013
Being that it’s the center of the political, financial and social world, it should come as no surprise that New York City attracts men of power. And over the past four decades, more and more U.S. presidents have started, finished or re-energized their careers right here in Manhattan. Looking toward Barack Obama’s second inauguration as President of the United States on Jan. 21, writer Tom Clavin delves into how and why so many former commanders-in-chief have called our city home.
He had gone into exile in California in disgrace. A few years passed, and he receded into history and began to feel irrelevant. The most notorious president in American history had to find redemption.
There was only one place for Richard Nixon to go: New York City.
Quick quiz: Which state boasts of having produced the most U.S. presidents? Answer: Virginia, with eight, the last being Woodrow Wilson. Second place goes to Ohio, laying claim to seven, with Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, bringing up the rear. So it’s surprising that, given its relatively high population throughout the nation’s history, the State of New York has given birth to only four chief executives: Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt—the only president to have first drawn breath in New York City itself (on East 20th Street).
And yet it’s almost always Presidents’ Day in the Big Apple. Why? Because no other American city can claim connections—political, financial, social—with more U.S. presidents. Tricky Dick was no pioneer, he was just one in a long string of chief executives whose careers rose or ended, or were born or even reborn in New York. How appropriate that the first was also the first ever to become president.
SWORN IN AS THE NATION’S FIRST PRESIDENT HERE
The British Army forced General George Washington to retreat from New York during the American Revolution, so there was some special satisfaction that it was here that he was sworn in as president. In April of 1789, he traveled north from his Mount Vernon, Va., home to what was then the nation’s capital, cheering crowds greeting him along the way. On Apr. 23, a barge brought him across the river from New Jersey to Manhattan, where he was received by city and state officials including Gov. George Clinton. Seven days later, in Federal Hall (now the Federal Hall National Memorial) on Wall Street, Washington took the oath of office.
DELIVERED GROUNDBREAKING SPEECH ABOUT SLAVERY HERE
Honest Abe was the next most prominent future president to journey to New York. In October 1859, he accepted an invitation to give a lecture at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. It took months to craft the speech on slavery that would become a cornerstone of his campaign for the presidency, which was just getting under way when he delivered it the following February. The audience was electrified. As The New York Tribune put it, “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”
WENT BANKRUPT, THEN WAS ENTOMBED HERE
You have to figure that Ulysses S. Grant, president from 1869 to 1877, is buried in Grant’s Tomb because of his long association with the city while he was above ground, right?
First of all, Grant is not “buried” there; he and his wife, Julia, are entombed. Second, the name isn’t Grant’s Tomb, it’s the General Grant National Memorial. Third, Grant lived in New York City only toward the end of his life. He bought a house here in 1881 and placed all his money in the hands of Grant & Ward, an investment banking firm cofounded by his son, Buck. Three years later, the other partner, Ferdinand Ward, swindled investors out of their dough and the firm went bankrupt. Broke, Grant retreated upstate to write his memoirs, which were published by Mark Twain. The book was a hit, but little good it did Grant—he died of cancer in 1885 at age 63, the year after its publication.
It was expected by officials in Indiana that Grant’s body would be shipped back to his native state of Ohio, but New York City wouldn’t let him go. Money was raised here for what would eventually become the memorial, now the largest mausoleum in North America, and the former president has resided there for 127 years, the only U.S. president buried in New York City.
NAMED “PORTS” HONCHO, THEN RETIRED HERE
Very connected to the New York metro area was Chester A. Arthur, who has the unhappy reputation of being perhaps the least distinguished of U.S. presidents. Born in Vermont, he was raised in upstate New York and was very much involved with the state’s Republican machine. In 1871, President Grant rewarded him with the powerful post of Collector of the Port of New York. James Garfield ran with Arthur as his vice president on the successful GOP ticket in 1880, and the following year, when Garfield died of an assassin’s bullet, Arthur became the country’s 21st president.
He did not seek a second term, but instead retired to his homes in Manhattan, at 123 Lexington Ave., and Sag Harbor, on eastern Long Island—a residence that was later owned by Lady Caroline Blackwood, who counted painter Lucian Freud and poet Robert Lowell among her husbands. The manse is now occupied by her daughter Ivana Lowell. Arthur was only 57 when he died in 1886.
BORN, RAISED, SERVED AS POLICE COMMISSIONER, AND BECAME DISTANT COUSIN TO YET ANOTHER PRESIDENT HERE
No president had longer ties to New York than Theodore Roosevelt. His Dutch ancestors had built New Amsterdam, a settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, in the early- to mid-1600s. Teddy’s father married a girl from Georgia, and the couple moved to a townhouse on East 20th Street. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born there on Oct. 27, 1858. His homestead would be Sagamore Hill, on Long Island, but New York City was always the place he considered home. He served as the police commissioner here until the Spanish-American War—and, eventually, the White House—lured him away.
Teddy’s relative Franklin Roosevelt has a weaker connection to New York City, with his homestead being the upstate community of Hyde Park. This president never had the opportunity to return there or give the city another shot, dying in office in April 1945.
MARRIED FIRST LADIES WHO WERE BORN HERE
And let’s not exclude first ladies who have had connections to the New York metropolitan area. Remarkably, two first ladies hail from the summer enclave of the Hamptons.
Gardiners Island in East Hampton was the birthplace of Julia Gardiner, in 1820. She married a sitting president, John Tyler, 30 years her senior, in June 1844 and served as first lady until he left office the following March.
And John F. Kennedy may have been a Massachusetts boy through and through, but he did have the good sense to marry a quintessential, dyed-in-the-wool New York girl.
Jacqueline Bouvier was born at Southampton Hospital (the first first lady born in a hospital) in 1929 and grew up in Manhattan and at the Bouvier estate in East Hampton. She married Senator John Kennedy in 1953. New York was also where she set up residence again after his assassination, and where she dedicated herself to accomplishing various good deeds, chief among them the rescuing of Grand Central Station from the wrecking ball. She died here in 1994.
PLOTTED HIS CAREER, THEN LICKED HIS WOUNDS HERE
Richard Nixon set the bar for presidents looking for redemption—or at least the chance to reboot their careers—by fleeing the White House for Manhattan. Of course, the move wasn’t a wild shot but a layup, because he’d lived here twice before.
The first time was in the summer of 1945. He and wife Pat Nixon lived in an apartment on West 93rd Street; it was there he plotted his successful run for Congress the following year.
The second time, he was licking his political wounds. He’d lost the 1960 presidential election and retreated to California. Nixon thought being elected governor there two years later would be a slam dunk. Voters thought otherwise. Stung, and still ruing the debacle of the “Checkers” speech about his dog, he decided it was time to renew his acquaintance with the Big Apple: “I moved my base from California to New York,” he reported later in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. “In effect, I was withdrawing from politics, in my view permanently.” Not so: It was in New York where Nixon began to plot his successful run for the White House in 1968.
Twelve years later, Nixon was through with campaigning, but—even with the baggage of Watergate—hoped he wasn’t through as a statesman. One more time, he and Pat moved to New York.
One would think that any Manhattan neighborhood would be flattered to be chosen by someone once the most powerful man in the world—even Nixon. But for Dick and Pat, living here got off to a rocky start. In July 1979, five years after he’d resigned the presidency, and restless in his self-exile at Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, Nixon put down a deposit on a $750,000 townhouse at 19 E. 72nd St.
The digs were not too shabby at all, but the treatment of the Nixons was.
Initially, the co-op board was OK with the new residents; but a few days later it rescinded its approval. Hand-wringing shareholders worried that Nixon would bring disrepute and unwanted notoriety to the highbrow building. He withdrew the deposit.
Enter the developer Lewis Rudin, a lifelong Democrat who owned two dozen buildings in the city. Rudin was furious at the show of disrespect. He asked the Nixons to take their pick of his apartments, but they declined, wanting to own whatever home they chose. Another lifelong Democrat, Lester Tanner, stepped in. He and his wife owned a 12-room, 5,000-square-foot townhouse at 142 E. 65th St. (In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up category, it had once been owned by Judge Learned Hand, who’d counted among his law clerks Archibald Cox, the first special prosecutor fired by Nixon during the Watergate investigation. Neighbors on either side were David Rockefeller, brother of Nelson, once a GOP rival of Nixon’s, and the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who’d been an assistant to JFK after, of course, he’d defeated Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.) Tanner contacted Nixon in California and offered to sell him the townhouse for the same price as the one on 72nd Street.
Within days, the Nixons were on the Tanners’ doorstep. They toured the house and vowed to buy it. The sale was finalized two months later, in October 1979. The New York Times reported the sale, and overnight the flowers in the townhouse’s garden were ripped out. Even without a generous welcome, Dick and Pat moved in as 1980 began.
And though they’d live here only three years before moving to Saddle River, N.J., by most accounts they were content in their Manhattan digs. Being in the Big Apple did indeed revitalize Nixon as a statesman and public figure; it also furthered his career as an author. He penned his autobiography, In the Arena, here, and was, in one editor’s view, a mostly cooperative writer. “He was very appreciative of suggestions, provided they were respectfully offered, and sometimes followed them,” recalls Michael Korda, former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, and the editor of Nixon’s autobio. “If not, he was likely to say, ‘No, Nixon won’t do that.’”
Nixon “always seemed to have a pretty good time,” Korda said about the ex-president’s years in New York. “He had his favorite restaurants and a wonderful Chinese cook at his townhouse.”
(SLEPT IN AN ALLEY THE NIGHT BEFORE HE) ATTENDED SCHOOL HERE
If Nixon had ventured to northern Manhattan—and, who knows, maybe he did?—he might have bumped into a future president known then as “Barry.” As fine a university as Columbia is, it has to date produced only one U.S. chief executive. (There was one previous contender, another Clinton—Columbia graduate DeWitt Clinton, who ran unsuccessfully against James Madison in 1812.)
Barack Obama transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles to Columbia University in 1981 in hopes of being inspired by New York City. The future 44th president claimed in his autobiography that he spent his first night in Manhattan sleeping in an alley near the corner of 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The next day he was let into an apartment at
142 W. 109th St. (the rent was $360).
Winter proved even more difficult than the Hawaii native had anticipated. The heat and hot water failed frequently in the third-story railroad apartment he shared with Phil Boerner, forcing Obama to spend most of his time in the Butler Library, and to wash up in the university gym’s showers. After a few months he moved to a more amenable flat, at 339 E. 94th St. At Columbia, he gained a reputation for being a very good and active student, but back in the Yorkville section between classes, Obama enjoyed beer and watching sports. (Hey, birthers, how American is that?)
Living in New York almost squelched his gestating political leanings, as time he spent browsing in bookstores and museums had Obama contemplating a writer’s life.
BEGAN HIS POST-PREZ VICTORY LAP, HAD HIS LIFESAVING SURGERIES AND STAYED MARRIED TO A POSSIBLE FUTURE PRESIDENT (OR NYC MAYOR?) HERE
An Arkansas native might seem the least likely to wind up in Harlem after exiting the White House, but Bill Clinton had long been intrigued by the city. His first encounter was while a student at Georgetown University, which he entered in 1964. His roommate was Tom Campbell, a Barry Goldwater.
supporter from Huntington, Long Island. “In the next four years Tommy would introduce me to… New York, to the Pierre Hotel and its great Indian curry, to the Carlyle Hotel and my first experience with expensive room service, and to the ‘21’ Club, where several of us celebrated his 21st birthday,” Clinton recounted in My Life, his 957-page autobiography.
During one trip, he had a taxi take him to Times Square: “I had never seen so many bright neon lights. The place was loud, fast and throbbing with life, some of it on the seamy side. I saw my first streetwalker, hitting on a hapless archetype: a pathetic-looking guy wearing a dark suit, crew cut and thick black horn-rimmed glasses and carrying a briefcase. He was both tempted and terrified. Terror won out. He walked on; she smiled, shrugged and went back to work.”
Clinton was repeatedly drawn to the New York metropolitan area, and not just for studying or work. After his nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention, he headed to the Hamptons, where he was the guest umpire at the annual Artists vs. Writers Softball Game. While he was president, the area was a favorite hunting ground for campaign dollars, and he teed it up at the South Fork Country Club in Amagansett and Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton. He and wife Hillary have spent the last two Augusts at a waterfront estate in East Hampton.
During his eight years in office, Clinton had many occasions to visit New York City itself, especially when making appearances at the United Nations. Still, it surprised many people when he rented an office in the Harlem section of Manhattan after leaving Washington. He and Hillary had already established residency in the state by buying a house in Chappaqua, and she had been elected to the U.S. Senate the year before.
Because of the impeachment and squalls of allegations about his personal conduct, one would think that Bill Clinton would welcome the relative obscurity and quiet of Arkansas. But that state didn’t offer the former president the best opportunity to be a statesman. He was fine with the bright lights of the big city because he could remain on the world stage and be readily available for special missions, such as when he was named the United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti in 2009.
There was also another consideration: better health care, and plenty of it. In 2004, Clinton underwent quadruple bypass surgery; the following year, he was operated on for scar tissue and fluid in his lung. In February 2010, suffering from chest pains, he was rushed to New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, where he had two stents implanted in his heart. New York City may well be keeping the 66-year-old alive.
And his pockets full.
“I would suggest it’s mainly money that brought Bill Clinton to New York,” says Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic State Assemblyman and an adjunct assistant professor of public policy at Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “But yes, it’s good to be in the eye of the media storm as well, and many of these guys want to maintain a public presence for all kinds of reasons.”
PLANNED A PRESIDENTIAL (OR MAYORAL) RUN HERE?
While New York may have offered Bill Clinton, like Nixon, some measure of redemption and new opportunities as a diplomat as well as more earning power, for former first lady Hillary Clinton, the city has been a life-changing experience. “I loved New York City’s raw energy, its mix of ethnic neighborhoods and its big-hearted, straight-talking people,” she wrote in her memoir Living History. It was here she began her first Senate campaign: “I made new friends in every corner of the city, visiting diners, union halls, schools, churches, synagogues, shelters and penthouses... I found I drew energy from the campaign itself.” Enough so that she may be considering a run for president herself in 2016? The signs look good, but only time will tell. In the meantime, New York City is looking for a new boss.
In fact, last year Michael Bloomberg contacted the outgoing Secretary of State to urge her to run yet another campaign: that of mayor of the Great City of New York. Being mayor is probably one of the few positions (barring the presidency) that would satisfy someone who’s spent years taking on the world.
Unless Bill beats her to it. What if the restless former president wants to succeed Bloomberg at City Hall? “I think it’s a grand idea,” Brodsky says. “He’s not above any of that stuff, à la John Quincy Adams.”