Holiday sparks thoughts on Aspen’s presidential links
February 18, 2015
Presidents Day, which is officially recognized today, is a federal holiday that doesn't seem to garner much hoopla in most parts of the nation.
But for many reasons, Aspen has strong connections to the holiday, which began in the late 19th century as "Washington's Birthday" and was celebrated for several decades Feb. 22 in honor of the nation's first president.
For starters, there's first lady Michelle Obama and her visit to Aspen for the past three Presidents Day weekends. President Barack Obama did not accompany her on the current ski trip, reportedly spending Saturday and Sunday in Palm Springs, California. In fact, local observers said they can't recall Barack Obama visiting Aspen since he became president.
He did visit in 2006 when he was a U.S. senator with presidential aspirations.
Blanca O'Leary, who chaired the Pitkin County Democrats from early 2009 until a few weeks ago and a current at-large Democratic National Committee member, said she met the president at an Aspen Institute event and shook his hand.
"I pledged my support to him way before he was running," she remembered.
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Former Mayor Bill Stirling also recalled Obama's Aspen visit.
"He was very impressive," Stirling said.
But the presidents who most often come to mind in relation to the upper Roaring Fork Valley are Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Carter received a hero's welcome and a huge turnout in August during a speech at the Hotel Jerome in which he discussed the environment and women's issues.
Either Clinton or his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seems to make an Aspen trip at least once a year. It's usually in conjunction with an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival — the Clintons are close to Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson — but sometimes they visit the area for a private sojourn.
"They have a lot of friends in the area, people from Los Angeles and New York and Chicago who come here a lot anyway," O'Leary said. "I think (Clinton) likes the climate here. After he served as president, he did a lot of exercising. He likes the whole body, mind and spirit aspect of Aspen."
Bill Clinton has spoken at the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival on several occasions, but not in 2014. Hillary Clinton came last summer and spoke on a variety of topics, most of which were covered in her book "Hard Choices," which was released just prior to last summer's conference.
Many locals remember Bill Clinton's conversation with Isaacson in 2005, when he defended the Bush administration's war in Iraq and offered insights into terrorism and John Kerry's failed bid for president in 2004.
His visit in 2011 wasn't quite as appealing. The oft-described charisma was missing, and the ex-president appeared tired and flushed, speaking at length about international affairs. He didn't seem to catch the audience's interest until the talk turned to politics at the end of his 45-minute interview with journalist Ronald Brownstein.
Former Mayor Mick Ireland said he's met Bill Clinton a few times in Aspen, the most memorable occasion being a private dinner at Boogie's Diner in 2008. There, Ireland — in his first term as Aspen's mayor — quizzed the former president for 45-minutes on a variety of subjects, and Clinton lamented the national media's coverage of his wife's failed campaign against Obama.
"He talked about the press and how they took down Hillary," Ireland recalled. "I told him, 'That's their job. They always go after the front-runner. They're always going to do that, Mr. President.'"
He also remembered greeting Bill Clinton in the summer of 1999 after the ex-president flew into Aspen very late in the evening. Ireland was coaching a baseball team, and Clinton signed a bat for him.
Ireland said he enjoyed conversing with Clinton on a wide variety of intellectual topics, from tax policy to macroeconomics to voting patterns.
Former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who was in office from early 1987 to early 2011, had firsthand knowledge of presidential and ex-presidential visits given that his department sometimes had to work with the U.S. Secret Service on security details. Sometimes, the visits were frustrating, he said, in that the federal government declined to cover the county's share of the costs for those trips.
Braudis recalled that George H.W. Bush came to Aspen for an Aspen Institute function in 1990. He met former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Woody Creek ranch of ambassador Henry Catto Jr., where the two world leaders ended up dealing with a fresh crisis: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Braudis doesn't recall George W. Bush ever coming to Aspen but remembers his daughters visiting the town when their father was president.
"They were party animals," he said.