VALDOSTA — EDITOR'S NOTE: Catch the coming October issue of Valdosta Scene magazine for a more in-depth look at First Lady visits to Valdosta.
One could think that, in a campaign year, Valdosta might see a visit from a presidential candidate. Of course, the campaign season isn’t over yet. But don’t bet on it.
The last time, and that was a rare time, that Valdosta hosted a presidential candidate was Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, who visited with future presidential candidates, wife Hillary Clinton and running mate Al Gore.
Yet, through the years, Valdosta-Lowndes County has had a few candidates, First Ladies, past-Presidents, future Presidents, and sitting Presidents visit the area.
Based on part speculation and part deduction, the earliest presidential visit was possibly President William McKinley, according to the Lowndes County Historical Society. There is no record of McKinley being in Valdosta, but there are records of him visiting Thomasville during his presidency, which capped the end of the 19th century. At that time, the most common train route to Thomasville would have taken McKinley through Valdosta.
One of the most well-known president-related visits was that of one of the nation’s most well-known past First Ladies. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She visited Valdosta shortly after the start of her husband’s unprecedented third term as President.
She visited Valdosta, or more specifically Georgia State Woman’s College, which would eventually become Valdosta State University, in March 1941.
Thomasville’s golf courses and splendor have apparently made Valdosta’s neighboring South Georgia city an attractive spot for American Presidents. The Lowndes County Historical Society has a tale of another President who may well have visited Valdosta on his way to Thomasville.
There is no solid evidence, but the Historical Society has noted that it is likely Dwight D. Eisenhower flew into Moody Air Force Base on his way to play golf in Thomasville during his presidency in the 1950s. Still, there is a much more colorful story connecting two Valdostans with Eisenhower.
Young college students Marsha Paulk and Lucy Henderson had served as big Eisenhower supporters in his initial 1952 run for the presidency, according to the Lowndes County Historical Society.
Such support was rare at the time because “Ike,” Eisenhower’s nickname, was a Republican, and Georgia, along with the rest of the South, had been a Democratic stronghold since the years following the post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Having word that Eisenhower planned to play golf in Thomasville, Paulk and Henderson’s friends played a prank on them. The plot included a faked invitation from “Ike” for Paulk and Henderson to visit him in Thomasville so he could thank them. As they prepared to make the trip to Thomasville, the friends surprised Paulk and Henderson with their “April Fools. Everybody laughed about it, but the girls were still disappointed, according to the tales
Charlie Barnes, an ardent area GOP supporter of the era, heard of the prank and worked to make the presidential invitation a reality. Barnes arranged for Henderson and Paulk to meet Eisenhower in Thomasville.
Jimmy Carter is the President who has likely visited Valdosta more than any other. A Plains farmer and a one-time Georgia governor, Carter has visited Valdosta on several occasions in many capacities. The late Edith Smith, who worked for The Valdosta Daily Times for more than 45 years, recalled Carter visiting the newspaper’s offices during his run for governor. He has also visited Valdosta in the years following his presidency.
In the 1960s, First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson visited Valdosta as part of a whistle-stop tour of the South to drum up support for her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The First Lady spoke from the back of a train before moving by rail to her next stop. Despite a large Valdosta crowd for her stop and President Johnson winning a landslide victory nationwide, Lowndes County began a new trend in 1964: Giving the majority of its votes to the GOP presidential candidate. Johnson was the first Democratic presidential candidate to not receive a majority of the presidential votes in Lowndes County, a trend which has continued with only two exceptions to this day.
Ronald Reagan visited Lowndes County as a presidential candidate. Former Valdosta Daily Times photographer Robert Winter III has recalled seeing Reagan’s legendary charm and spontaneous wit firsthand. With his camera clicking away, Winter snapped numerous photographs of the future President. Reagan looked at Winter and told the gathered crowd, “This man doesn’t need a motor drive. He is a motor drive.”
In 1960, The Valdosta Daily Times sent Winter to Jacksonville, Fla., to take photographs of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Less than four years later, Winter would take a photograph at St. John’s Catholic Church of Valdostans mourning JFK’s death on the evening following the President’s assassination.
The Clintons arrived in town during his campaign against President George H.W. Bush. Clinton spoke outside of the Lowndes County Courthouse in front of an estimated Downtown Valdosta crowd of 7,000 people. Clinton derided President George W. Bush during his Valdosta speech, comparing Bush 41’s presidency with a popular movie franchise of the time: “Honey, I Blew Up the Deficit” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Economy.”
That visit could be considered a presidential trifecta since it included Bill Clinton, who won the presidency; Al Gore who was the Democratic nominee in 2000; and Hillary Clinton who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Still, even though Clinton visited Valdosta and won the presidency in 1992, Lowndes County still gave a plurality of its votes to the failed re-election campaign of President George H.W. Bush, who had visited Valdosta many years prior to his presidency.
George H.W. Bush visited Valdosta because his son, George W. Bush, lived here while stationed at Moody Air Force Base for pilot training with the Air National Guard.
The younger Bush was stationed at Moody for several weeks and dated a Valdosta State student while here, according to the Lowndes County Historical Society. The elder Bush visited his son at Moody, and many years later, both would become President, the 41st and 43rd respectively.
Still, even with his Valdosta ties, George W. Bush didn’t visit his old stomping grounds while President, though Laura Bush is scheduled to visit Valdosta next month as a guest speaker for Georgia Christian School’s annual dinner.
But President Bush probably didn’t visit Valdosta for the same reason that we haven’t seen any president or presidential candidate since Bill Clinton 20 years ago. With Lowndes County’s predictable voting record favoring GOP presidential candidates, Democratic contenders likely think South Georgia is a lost cause while Republican candidates probably consider the region as a sure thing.