Presidents and Maine

Posted July 15, 2010, at 6:34 p.m.

Mainers may have become blasé about a sitting president visiting our state. After all, we experienced 12 years of the Bushes — George H.W. and George W. — enjoying the splendors of summer in Kennebunkport. And the senior Bush’s fatherly relationship with Bill Clinton meant that he, too, was a semiregular visitor to Maine. With the Obamas scheduled to visit Mount Desert Island this weekend, the impact Maine has on presidents — rather than the other way around – is interesting to ponder.

George W. Bush was arrested for OUI while in Maine, a blemish that became public just days before the 2000 presidential election. But far more important is what happened to the 43rd president on the morning after his 40th birthday. It has been reported that Mr. Bush encountered evangelist Billy Graham near the pool at the Walker’s Point compound that day. Mr. Graham, visiting the elder Bush, and George W. had a conversation that led to his quitting drinking for good and becoming a born-again Christian. It’s not a stretch to believe the majesty and power of the cold North Atlantic, stretching as far as the eye can see from Walker’s Point, may have had its influence on such life-changing, eternal matters.

Andrew Vietze’s fine book, “Becoming Teddy Roosevelt — How a Maine Guide Inspired America’s 26th President,” published earlier this year, chronicles how TR was influenced by his pre-presidential visits to Aroostook County and the tutelage of Island Falls guide William Wingate Sewall. The Maine guide described the future Rough Rider as a “thin pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart.” Mr. Sewall would become TR’s mentor and lifelong friend. TR learned to test himself against the North Woods, tramping around lakes, hunting and fishing, impressing the guide with his courage and tenacity.

Franklin Roosevelt’s beloved summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick was a source of joy and restoration for FDR, both before and after being afflicted with polio. The edge-of-America nature of the Eastport and Lubec area, where FDR sailed, must have been a tonic in the difficult years of the Depression and World War II.

Richard Nixon visited Maine several times, perhaps most notably in August 1971, when he traveled to Minot Island near Islesboro in Penobscot Bay. The Bangor Daily News published photos of the president on a cabin cruiser. In one, Mr. Nixon is seen sitting stiffly at the stern, wearing a checkered short-sleeve shirt, as much in relaxation mode as was apparently possible. In another, he is standing at the bow, his pants hiked up high on his waist, the cuffs a half-foot above his shoes, perhaps expecting a rogue wave.

While on Minot Island, in response to inflation and other problems, Mr. Nixon imposed a 90-day wage and price freeze, a 10 percent import surcharge, and took the nation’s currency off the gold standard, moves that today are known as the “Nixon Shock.” Let’s hope MDI’s effect on the Obamas inspires nothing more dramatic than the shock of a plunge into the chilly ocean.

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