On July 3, President Donald J. Trump visited Mount Rushmore to attend an Independence Day program that will feature fireworks above the monument. It was the sixth public appearance by a sitting U.S. President at the Mount Rushmore site. In addition, there has been at least one known private visit to the monument by a sitting president. This post includes a brief history of these visits. (An earlier post looked at all presidential visits to South Dakota.)
1927: Calvin Coolidge
In 1927, at the invitation of U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck and Gov. W. J. Bulow, President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge made their “summer White House” at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. It is often said that Coolidges loved the Hills so much that they extended their planned three-week vacation to three months. (Seth Tupper, recounts the entire visit in his excellent book Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills, has told me that he can find no support for this claim.)
Mt. Rushmore, a project with Senator Norbeck’s strong backing, had begun construction that same year, and Norbeck arranged for Coolidge to visit the construction site. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum was a great promoter and he found the opportunity afforded by Coolidge’s visit to be irresistible, so he organized a “dedication” of the site. As Gov. Bulow, who attended the ceremony, would later write, “Borglum had a habit of dedicating the mountain about once every year.”
The Coolidge visit paid off, with national attention brought to Mt. Rushmore and to the Black Hills, and the visit can be credited with kick-starting the state’s tourism industry.
1936: Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Roosevelt came to Mt. Rushmore in 1936 to dedicate the face of Thomas Jefferson, the second face to be completed. Roosevelt was running for a second term against Kansas Governor Alfred Landon, a Republican; FDR had carried South Dakota in 1932 and would carry it again in his landslide reelection in 1936.
FDR offered brief remarks at the dedication, including the following:
This is the second dedication. There will be others by other presidents in other years. When we get through, there will be something for the American people that will last through not just generations but for thousands and thousands of years, and I think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans ten thousand years from now when the weathering on the face of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln shall have proceeded to perhaps a depth of a tenth of an inch – meditate and wonder what our descendants, and I think they will still be here, will think about us. Let us hope that at least they will give us the benefit of the doubt – that they will believe we have honestly striven every day and generation to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.
1953: Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Eisenhower spent several days vacationing at the State Game Lodge in June 1953, his first year in office. The visit to the Black Hills included an address to the South Dakota Young Republicans League at Mt. Rushmore. A video of the visit is available here.
1991: George H. W. Bush
Echoing Borglum’s penchant for dedication ceremonies, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of construction afforded an opportunity for the first dedication of the completed monument. President George H. W. Bush enjoyed the Black Hills during his visit, fishing for trout in the recently-stocked Horse Thief Lake.
Four thousand attendees crammed into the monument’s amphitheater for the event, which also featured native South Dakotans Tom Brokaw and Mary Hart.
1999: Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton came to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1999 as part of a tour of impoverished regions in the United States. President Clinton stayed in Rapid City, and the night of his arrival, his motorcade took him to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments for brief evening visits. The visits were not announced in advance and included no public appearances by the President.
2002: George W. Bush
President George W. Bush visited Mt. Rushmore and delivered an address on homeland security to an audience of approximately 2500 in August 2002. Though an official visit, the stop was widely seen as being intended to aid the U.S. Senate candidacy of Congressman John Thune, who was challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Tim Johnson. Bush’s visit, though, may have politically backfired, as he failed to back relief for farmers and ranchers suffering from a severe drought.
2020: Donald J. Trump
President Trump attended an Independence Day program at Mt. Rushmore on the evening of July 3, 2020, which featured the first fireworks display at the monument since 2009. The National Park Service operated a lottery for tickets to the event, with applicants requesting more than 125,000 tickets for the approximately 7,500 available. President Trump used the opportunity to deliver a major address, condemning a “left-wing cultural revolution” in favor of reverence for America’s founders and major historical figures, such as those on Mount Rushmore.