How Many Presidents Visited All 50 States Before Leaving Office?
As you may have read, President Obama raised some eyebrows earlier this month when it was reported that he has only visited 49 out of 50 states since his first term began. The lone outlier? South Dakota.
“We’d always love to have him,” said ex-senator Tom Daschle, who suggested one of the state’s nine Indian reservations for a stop on Obama’s next road trip. Back in 2013, South Dakota’s department of tourism officially invited him over, noting “your wife and daughters have visited Mount Rushmore … now it is your turn.” And don’t miss John Oliver’s brilliant take on Obama’s neglect of South Dakota (complete with a phony, somewhat NSFW ad).
A little over a week after the comedian’s bit aired, Obama announced that he would indeed be dropping by Watertown, S.D., where he’ll deliver a commencement address at Lake Area Technical Institute. By exploring the great states of South Dakota, North Carolina, Idaho, and Utah this year, Obama will soon become only the fourth sitting president in U.S. history to have set foot in all 50 states.
WHERE THE OTHER PRESIDENTS STAND
FDR would be on this exclusive list, if it weren’t for the fact that Alaska and Hawaii didn’t become states until 1959. Fittingly, the longest-serving POTUS managed to explore—or at the very least pass through—those two territories and all 48 extant states during his twelve-year stint in the White House.
“Unfortunately,” says archive specialist Jim Armistead of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, “no one has compiled a list of all the states which President Truman visited while he was in office.” Still, his public papers reveal that at least 40 hosted him at one point during his two terms. Furthermore, Armistead notes that before Hawaii joined the union, Truman stopped there “on his way to Wake Island for a conference with General Douglas MacArthur in 1950.” As for America’s other soon-to-be state, he considered taking an Alaskan vacation during the summer of ‘46, but ultimately opted for a New England getaway instead.
Dwight Eisenhower was technically the first president to serve all 50 states—under his watch, two new stars were added to our flag after Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. But despite that—as well as Eisenhower’s part in the creation of America’s interstate highway system—there were a few states that the 34th president never got around to seeing before he left D.C.
For example, Idaho, which got snubbed by Ike and his successor. In John F. Kennedy’s defense, he did manage a visit to every single state at some point (just not during his tragically-short administration). Next up was Lyndon Johnson, who made time for Idaho as chief executive, but neglected places like North Dakota.
Then came Richard Nixon. One day in 1971, “Tricky Dick” met with Republican fundraisers at a Delaware estate. As unassuming as this little foray was, it capped a remarkable accomplishment. By crossing Delaware off his list, Nixon had done something that no previous president had—he’d checked out all 50 states while in office, and did so in less than three years.
According to his press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler, Nixon firmly believed in getting out and meeting everyday people—as his travels purportedly demonstrated. “He has done that,” said Ziegler. “I think he will continue to do that.”
Unfortunately, Nixon’s sudden, scandalous departure didn’t give Gerald Ford much time to work with, and he couldn’t keep the fifty-state visitation streak alive. (Just like Johnson, North Dakota was among those Ford missed). Jimmy Carter also fell short during his one-term presidency, failing to reach such states as South Dakota and Vermont.
Let’s pause here for a moment, because the syrup-scented home of Ben & Jerry’s really deserves a shout-out. Historically, presidential visits to Vermont have been quite scarce. Before Obama was sworn in, three of the previous five commanders-in-chief never came calling on the New England gem. After Carter overlooked it, Vermont went on to become one of only four states that Ronald Reagan passed over (along with Maine, Rhode Island, and Delaware). Even so, the whole quartet voted for him in 1984—and all but Rhode Island had done so in 1980.
George H.W. Bush did in a single term what Reagan couldn’t in two, becoming the first president since Nixon to see every state. Bill Clinton then followed suit, squeezing in his final state just under the wire.
While Clinton was in office, GOP leaders in Nebraska began taking pride in an odd piece of trivia. “We have the distinction,” Governor Mike Johanns gloated at the Republican National Convention in 2000, “of being the only state in the union, I repeat the ONLY state in the union, never visited by Bill Clinton since he’s been president.” Naturally, the conservative crowd went wild. Four months later, Clinton finally showed and shook hands with Johanns himself when Air Force One touched down at the Kearney Municipal Airport.
George W. Bush spent time in a grand total of 49 states before calling it quits. Care to guess which one he spurned? (We’ll give you a hint: it starts with a “V” and rhymes with “croissant.”)
To say that the 43rd president wasn’t a popular guy in Vermont would be a serious understatement. After all, in 2008, two Vermont towns—Brattleboro and Marlboro—approved a nonbinding measure supposedly requiring local police officers to arrest Bush and then-VP Dick Cheney on sight. Perhaps it was for the best that the head of state kept his distance.