Peter Callaghan: Woodrow Wilson got huge welcome – and strawberries

Staff WriterFebruary 18, 2014 

You’d think that after a while, U.S. presidents might think twice before agreeing to visit Tacoma.

Some Presidents Day research into Woodrow Wilson’s stop in the city in 1919 shows one of the great orator’s last unencumbered speeches was made here. Wilson collapsed from what might have been a small stroke after a subsequent appearance in Colorado.

Less than four years later, President Warren Harding included Tacoma in his Western tour before visiting Alaska. A month later he was dead from an embolism while in San Francisco (though the distress from eating bad crab before leaving Alaska didn’t help).

Is President John Kennedy’s assassination three months after a triumphal speech at Cheney Stadium enough to establish a pattern? Forget that 10 other men visited Tacoma as president without ill effects; newsies need only three incidents to declare a trend.

Of the three ill-fated visits, Wilson’s is the most interesting and historic. Tacoma was one of 29 cities visited by the Democratic president during a four-week campaign to drum up support for the League of Nations. The League, a result of the treaty that ended World War I, was a precursor to the United Nations but faced opposition in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

Washington was represented by two Republicans: Sens. Miles Poindexter of Spokane and Wesley Jones of Yakima. Poindexter was a leader of the opposition, but Jones had not committed.

Wilson arrived at Union Station in the morning hours of Sept. 13, 1919 — the 10th day of the tour. The president had been warned that his health might not allow him to complete the tour.

In his recent book, Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg wrote that the president told his doctor that he had sent soldiers to Europe and “in the crucial test in the trenches they did not turn back and I cannot turn back now.”

“Wilson’s Plea, ‘Finish War Job,’” was the banner headline in The News Tribune the afternoon of his appearances. “30,000 Greet President Wilson in Stadium.”

I’d always assumed that he delivered his speech in the Bowl where a large crowd, including an estimated 12,000 school children, had gathered. But coverage said he had not intended to speak there, though he did give brief remarks after being impressed by the reception.

“It is very delightful to find myself in this beautiful spot and very thrilling to find myself surrounded by so great a company of my fellow citizens,” Wilson said.

Wrote one of the reporters covering the appearance: “There was a continual roar of cheering after he finished speaking and until his party had circled out of the Stadium on the way to the Armory.”

It was there that he delivered his primary message — that a failure to ratify the treaty, complete with the League of Nations, would mean that those who fought had done so in vain. At one point, Wilson laid out the costs of the war, both in dollars spent and lives lost.

“I read you these figures in order to emphasize and set in a higher light, if I may, the substitute which is offered to us — the substitute for war, the substitute for turmoil, the substitute for sorrow and despair. That substitute is offered in the covenant of the League of Nations.”

The paper noted that at the end of the speech, a man in the front row approached the stage and tried to lift a box over the railing. Six agents descended on him and the package, ripping it open “while the giver stood petrified with surprise and consternation.”

The package didn’t contain a threat to Wilson’s safety, just two boxes of strawberries. When the president saw what had happened, he hurried to the front and “clasped the farmer’s grimy and hardened hand in both of his in a handshake of friendliness and appreciation.”

Wilson appeared next in Seattle, where his speech was disrupted by union protesters. He then headed to California and through the Southwest. After a speech in Pueblo, Colo., he collapsed and the rest of the tour was canceled. Upon returning to the White House, he was felled by a major stroke and filled out his term in ill health.

The treaty was not ratified, and the U.S. did not join the League of Nations, crippling its effectiveness. In the end, neither Washington state senator voted to ratify it.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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