The Day the White House on Wheels Rolled into Town

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

If you went back there, you’d see the outline of a familiar city, with its parts rearranged in puzzling ways. It would be the sort of weird dream that would make you worry about yourself.

That week bluegrass legend Lester Flatt was at the Civic Coliseum, but he was sharing a bill with hippie-rock band Barefoot Jerry and O.B. McClinton, the short-lived black country singer who called himself “the Chocolate Cowboy.”

The relatively new local restaurant Ruby Tuesday was advertising “Continental Cuisine” at all three of its locations.

The summer’s big sensation, Jaws, was still playing at Studio One, the Magnolia Avenue theater until recently known as the Park. At Bearden’s Capri—it wasn’t an upscale art gallery yet—was the post-apocalyptic Don Johnson movie A Boy and His Dog, set after World War IV: “The Year is 2024. A future you’ll probably live to see. An R-rated, rather kinky tale of survival.”

At Clarence Brown Theatre, distinguished British actor-director Anthony Quayle was rehearsing for his own distinctive production of MacBeth, himself in the title role.

The Marriott Hotel was there, the modernist wedge on the east side of downtown where it always is. But it was called the Hyatt Regency. The Republican president whose motorcade arrived there was a conservative who was for tax cuts and against gun control, but was trying to ways to curb fossil-fuel consumption and trying to force power companies to reduce air pollution. President Gerald Ford arrived in Knoxville 40 years ago this week with some interesting context.

For Knoxville, it may have been the most extensive presidential visit since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Nothing like Nixon’s brief cameo at a Billy Graham crusade five years earlier, Ford was in downtown Knoxville for most of the day, meeting with governors and other political and special-interest leaders from a 13-state area. The press corps, including its most famous interrogator, Helen Thomas of UPI, was there.

The visit by America’s one president never to be elected was regarded as one of his first appearances of his one presidential campaign. Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, himself under fire for his own political machinations, greeted Ford but condemned the visit as a “political coup.”

Blanton was of course outnumbered by Republicans, including Mayor Kyle Testerman and Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock. Another member of the greeting delegation was 35-year-old Lamar Alexander, described as an “unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.”

It was one of Ford’s first appearances outside of Washington since a woman fired a pistol at him two weeks earlier in San Francisco. Which, in itself, was a couple of weeks after another woman brandished another loaded pistol at him in Sacramento.

Security was an underlying theme of the Ford visit, the subject of questions about guns. The sound of a .38 slug flying in his direction didn’t soften Ford’s opposition to new firearm legislation. It was probably more dangerous to drive a car, the 62-year-old former Michigan congressman said, than to be president. He wouldn’t curtail his travels. “A president has certain responsibilities to see people around the country.”

However, Ford didn’t see all that many people here. It was the highest-security presidential visit in Knoxville history, and his schedule of events were all invitation-only. Previously, presidential visits to Knoxville had almost always included an appearance before the public. This one didn’t.

They called it “the White House on Wheels.” In one newspaper photo, it appears that Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, was along for the ride down Alcoa Highway to the Hyatt.

Part of the context of Ford’s trip, of course, was energy policy. The Arab oil embargo, two years earlier, had proved how dependent America had become on foreign regimes it didn’t understand.

Several members of Ford’s staff had been in town for a couple of days. The previous day’s Mid-Appalachian Symposium, at the University Center’s ballroom, was all about energy. Attending were several energy honchos, including Tennessee Valley Authority officials and Oak Ridge National Laboratory administrator Alvin Weinberg, who advocated “the Nuclear Option”—his choice of phrase might sound alarming, but he was discussing energy production—and a half-dozen prominent members of Ford’s Federal Energy Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. It wasn’t all niceties. Russell Train, the second-ever administrator of the EPA, publicly denounced TVA as a “major obstruction” to Ford’s clean-air policies for its refusal to invest in scrubbers.

Frank Zarb, Ford’s “Energy Czar,” remarked, “if we can’t enforce federal law against another federal agency, you can’t enforce it against the other private utilities.”

Zarb was also outspoken about America’s wastefulness, comparing the nation’s energy consumption to a “Roman orgy” that undermined national interests. “We may be consuming ourselves to death,” he said.

In the Hyatt’s Cumberland Ballroom, Ford was more circumspect than his energy czar, speaking vaguely about increasing America’s energy independence through a combination of thrift and exploration. Briefly, he mentioned prospects for a grain-for-oil deal with the Soviet Union.

He defended recent vetoes of strip-mining restrictions and a free-lunch proposal for schoolchildren, and his ongoing negotiation concerning the Panama Canal. He touted his $28 million tax-cut proposal—and the prospect of U.S. energy independence.

Although first announced as a forum for discussing the problems of Appalachia, press reports suggest the meeting quickly became national, and sometimes personal, with questions reflecting the real concerns of the American people: whether his wife, Betty, was too outspoken for a First Lady. And whether his son Jack should have admitted to smoking marijuana. Ford’s low-key response was more or less the same for both: “In our family everybody tries to be honest and frank.”

Little comments like that made national headlines. Different papers emphasized different parts of Ford’s wide-ranging if not far-reaching remarks. For proud Knoxvillians, the trip’s value included the global advertisement of the fact there was a “Hyatt Regency Knoxville.”

In a cabinet meeting the next morning, Ford remarked on his Knoxville trip. According to minutes later made public, “The feeling he got there is that too many people think the government is their foe.”

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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