Monday, February 21, 2011

Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day, the holiday started originally as George Washington's birthday.  It got me thinking about the role of US Presidents in Alaska history.  In general, Alaska has been a backwater of presidential politics.  Never more than three electoral votes, it has been solidly in the Republican column since statehood in 1959 (the only Democrat to win Alaska was LBJ in 1964).  This has made it so that campaign visits by presidential candidates are almost unheard of.  In 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon had vowed to campaign in all 50 states.  Many historians question his choice of campaigning in Alaska during October during a close campaign, arguing his time would have been better spent in close states like Illinois or Texas.  After that, Alaska did not so much as sniff presidential politics until the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as VP nominee in 2008.

Though not on the radar for presidential politics, US Presidents have had a role in Alaska history.  After the Alaska Purchase, the new land was largely ignored in Washington and directly administered by the US military.  Future President Benjamin Harrison helped push Alaska into civil administration with the Organic Act of 1884.  The Act termed Alaska a District, not a territory.  The civil laws would be the same as Oregon, the nearest state (Washington was still a territory).  The US President would have great powers in appointing Alaska officials up until Statehood.

It would not be until the 20th century that Alaska really began to garner interest in Washington.  In the early part of the century, interest grew in improving the transportation infrastrucure in Alaska.  After the failure of private attempts to build a railroad from the southern coast to Fairbanks,  congress passed the second Organic Act in 1912.  One provision stated that the president the authority to decide on the railroad routes in Alaska.  It fell to Woodrow Wilson to make the decision.  In the end he decided on the line running from Seward up through Cook Inlet and the MatSu valley to Fairbanks.  An outgrowth of this line was the railroad camp at the Ship Creek anchorage that became the town of Anchorage.  Eventually, President Warren Harding became the first president to visit Alaska when he arrived to drive in the golden spike signifying completion of the railroad.  The federal government would own the Alaska railroad until the 1980s. 

 Harding driving the Golden Spike

During the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Alaska saw great changes.  Farmers from poverty stricken areas were settled in the MatSu valley.  Alaska saw great growth in the military presence in the construction of bases and the highway to quickly move equipment from the lower 48.  In 1944 after the Japanese had been expelled from Alaska territory, FDR toured the Naval bases in the Aleutians.  Harry Truman supported Alaska statehood, but all efforts stalled in the US Senate.  It was during Dwight Eisenhower's term that Alaska achieved the statehood goal.  Ironically, Eisenhower has some reluctance due to the impression that Alaska would become a Democratic State.

Eisenhower parades through Anchorage 1960

Since statehood, the US president has had less opportunity to explicitly dictate terms in Alaska and the action has shifted more to Congress.  Still, there continues to be an uneasy relationship between state and federal rights.  The large amount of Federal land within the State of Alaska gives Presidential cabinet members a large amount of power to set policy in Alaska with regards to oil leases, mining, and fishing.  The changes in policy with each administration lends itself to calls for more state control.  It is a friction that will likely continue for future presidents. 

Reagan met the Pope in Fairbanks in 1984 when both were in the middle of world trips

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