PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — When Barack Obama spends the night in the Providence area on Thursday, it will be the first time in more than 50 years that a sitting president has slept in the nation’s smallest state.
Obama is due to arrive at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick on Thursday evening. He plans to speak late Friday morning about the economy at Rhode Island College in Providence. The White House has not yet said where Obama will stay, or what he’ll do during the rest of his visit.
In recent years, presidents have swung through Rhode Island briefly but haven’t lingered. Obama visited a Woonsocket business in 2010 before attending a private fundraiser in Providence, and George W. Bush made a quick visit to the U.S. Naval War College in 2007.
There’s a reason for that, said Ted Widmer, a presidential historian at Brown University.
“We’re so tiny, and we’re so reliably blue that there’s not really any political reason to come to Rhode Island,” he said. “You might want to come for the food or the beaches. But Rhode Island will always vote Democratic, and it will never have more than four electoral votes, and it will probably only have three electoral votes before too long.”
It wasn’t always that way. During the mid-20th Century, Newport was known as “the summer White House.”
The last president to stay in Rhode Island was President John F. Kennedy. He stayed frequently at Hammersmith Farm, the Newport estate owned by the family of his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The Kennedys married in Newport and Kennedy trained for the Navy there.
President Dwight Eisenhower also vacationed several times in Newport, staying there for weeks at a time during several summers. In 1957, he was there as he dealt with the crisis over school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas. The home he stayed in during two of his summers in Newport, at Fort Adams, is now called Eisenhower House.
Earlier presidents also stayed in Rhode Island. William Howard Taft stayed on the presidential yacht when he visited the Squantum Association in East Providence in 1911. Chester Arthur attended a political rally in the form of a clambake at the same club in 1882.
A visit George Washington made to Newport in 1790 turned out to be an important one in the history of religious freedom in the United States. The visit prompted Washington to later write a letter to the city’s Jewish residents affirming the new nation’s dedication to religious tolerance, saying it “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Widmer, who has worked for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, said he was surprised that Obama decided to stay overnight, given the state’s proximity to Washington.
“I think it’s charming. It’s democracy. It’s getting him out of Washington and seeing people,” he said. “We’re always so delighted when any president remembers Rhode Island is in the United States.”
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