Donald Trump is the 19th president to visit Montana. Our people have welcomed each of them, Republican and Democrat, since 1883, when our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur, a Republican from New York City, rode a horse out of Yellowstone Park and into Montana.
Since that first presidential arrival by horseback, our chief executives have waved at us from convertibles, spoken from the rear of a train, met us at airports, walked across Eight Avenue South in Great Falls to shake our hands, and greeted us while riding shotgun on a stage coach in Billings.
Twenty years after Chester Arthur’s visit, President Teddy Roosevelt got off a train and swung up on a horse at Gardiner, where he would later lay the cornerstone for the Yellowstone Arch. T.R.’s fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, drove into the state from Spokane on a 1934 visit to the site for Fort Peck Dam and to Glacier National Park, from where he made a national radio address to the people of Montana and the nation, declaring, “There is nothing so American as our national parks.” Harry Truman was so exhilarated by a crowd of 40,000 during his 1948 Whistle Stop campaign swing through Butte, he would later say, when asked how such an underdog as he had won that election, “It all started in Butte, Montana.”
President Jack Kennedy agreed to Sen. Mike Mansfield’s request to visit the house of his aunt and uncle who had raised Mansfield in Great Falls. Following that visit to the little house at 600 Eighth Avenue South, Kennedy walked across the street to greet those in a crowd of 4,000 who were waiting to get a glimpse of him. Kennedy’s visit to Great Falls that September of 1963 witnessed the largest crowd to ever welcome a president to Montana: 100,000 people.
As a side note to this column and knowing it would be silly to argue crowd size with President Trump, it is nonetheless revealing to match his recent crowd of around 6,000 in Great Falls with President Kennedy’s crowd which, 50 years ago, was 16 times larger, or with Ronald Reagan’s crowd in Billings, following that “Shotgun Ride,” which was around three times bigger. President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 crowd in Butte was six times greater than what Donald Trump trumpeted about in Great Falls a week or so ago.
Regardless, we have treated each president with a smile, handshake and a big welcome to Big Sky Country.