4 Presidents (and one VP) Humbled at National Parks

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BY BRIAN KEVIN
As soon as he became the first director of the National Park Service in 1917, millionaire borax magnate Stephen Mather promoted the parks as the ultimate social equalizers, places "accessible alike to the poor and to the rich." According to Mather, the Parks were places where identities were leveled, and visitors were equally humbled by nature. On occasion, this concept even extended to the nation's top office. Below, a few instances where executive privilege got checked at the park entrance gate.

1. John F. Kennedy's Public Petting Zoo

President Kennedy spent a single night in northern California's tiny Lassen Volcanic National Park during a natural resource tour in 1963, the last year of his presidency. A decade after Kennedy's assassination, Time presidential reporter Hugh Sidey recalled how the President was so excited at the prospect of feeding the deer outside his cabin (a no-no in any park today), he repeatedly sent his aides to find more food he could hold out to the animals.

The next morning, Kennedy was embarrassed when it was announced there would be no toast with breakfast, as the President had fed all available bread to the park's deer.

2. The Cranky Liar who Stopped Roosevelt from Seeing a Bear

aprez2.pngRough Rider and old-school conservationist Teddy Roosevelt toured Yellowstone National Park in April of 1903 alongside naturalist John Burroughs and a small crew of guides and Secret Service agents. Since much of the park was still undergoing winter thaw, Teddy was able to glimpse at large herds of bighorn sheep and elk grazing in the low country. But what the President wanted to see most of all were grizzly bears, so a scout was sent to the nearby Lake Hotel to find out whether any had yet emerged from hibernation.

The bears were indeed up and about, but the hotel's cranky winter keeper Bill Scales didn't want the hassles of a presidential entourage, so he lied about it and sent the scout away. Teddy left the park without encountering the animal that had adopted his nickname years earlier. Toward the end of his life, Scales wrote that he sloughed off the Prez because "I did not want to build fires and clean up the mess that a crowd would make."

3. Franklin Roosevelt Goes A-Begging

aprez4.pngDuring the build-up to the formation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Walker sisters were five unmarried Appalachian matrons living in a clapboard cabin in the vale of Little Greenbrier, Tennessee. The spinstery gang refused to sell their family's 122 acres to the government's land acquisition committee, whose members feared bad press if they were to turn five helpless old women out on their ears. When President Franklin Roosevelt came to Gatlinburg to dedicate the park in 1940, the Walkers were still holed up and holding out.

According to local legend (and Walker sisters biographer Bonnie Trentham Myers), Roosevelt surreptitiously escaped the ceremonies that day in order to personally intercede with the stubborn ladies. Citing an unnamed local deputy, Myers goes so far as to claim that a Roosevelt doppleganger rode away in the President's car that afternoon, while the real one was on his knees in a remote Appalachian shack. What we know is that the Walker sisters finally sold out just four months later, having somehow obtained from the government a rare lifetime lease.

4. Herbert Hoover Breaks the Dress Code

aprez5.pngThough he was still only Secretary of Commerce when he checked into Yosemite's brand new Ahwahnee Hotel in 1927, Herbert Hoover was one of the most well-known men in American politics and the leading contender to head the 1928 Republican presidential ticket. "The Great Engineer" was also a devout fly-fisherman, and he spent much of his trip wading the park's rivers and streams in search of lunker trout.

The decadent Ahwahnee had opened earlier that year, part of a plan to lure wealthy patrons to support the still-young park system (kind of skewing the whole egalitarian thing). The jacket-and-tie dress code helped keep out the hoi polloi. It also kept out Secretary Hoover, however, who was refused entry when he showed up at the front door wet, muddy, and clutching a basket of dead fish. The future Commander-in-Chief  had to sneak in a back door and dash for his room via the service elevator.

And a VP:  Dick Cheney Gets a Scolding

Okay, so technically Cheney was #2. Still, his White House credentials didn't protect him from the ire of locals around Jackson, Wyoming, who were miffed whenever the VP's security caravan of multiple Black Hawk helicopters buzzed the area during vice presidential fishing trips. During one of the devoted angler's many visits to Grand Teton National Park's Snake River, Cheney and his detail landed three choppers uncomfortably close to a protected bird sanctuary outside the park. In advance of another visit, two Black Hawks hovered at tree-top level to peer down on a group of rafters and fisherman, lingering low enough to send vegetation rippling and waterfowl into tailspin. That incident earned a stern rebuke from from the Park Service, whose spokesman scolded that a military-style "reconnaissance mission is not something to do in a national park."

Hopefully the former VP will be a better neighbor in retirement, as he owns a home outside Grand Teton, and at disclosed location, no less — the Teton Pines Country Club.

March 4, 2009 - 6:00am
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