It's been interesting listening to some of the reaction to President Obama's upcoming visit here March 2. Much like the hysteria over his Sept. 2009 speech to public school classrooms -- a commonplace enough thing for presidents before him -- the negative feedback has taken on an ugly overtone.
The announcement of the visit on the Savannah Morning News website is a classic example. If you read the comments below the story, you see disgust not only with his administration, but with Obama as a person and with the very idea of his physical presence. Some sentiments seem to go beyond mere political disagreement and into a stranger, darker place.
Things don't have to be this way, and things haven't always been this way.
Leaving aside President George W. Bush's visits to Savannah -- a quick non-public appearance at the 2004 G8 summit and several campaign stops at military bases -- there's been only one really big, truly public appearance here by a president in recent memory.
Or not so recent memory, since it occurred almost 18 years to the day before Obama's upcoming visit.
On March 1, 1992, President George H. W. Bush visited River Street on a campaign stop during his unsuccessful reelection bid. Unlike his son's much more tightly controlled, limited-access visits here, during the first Bush's appearance anyone who wanted to brave the crowd was invited and allowed onto River Street.
It was the biggest thing that had happened in Savannah in a long time, and it transcended politics. Are you kidding? It was the president!
I don't remember a word Bush said during his hour-long speech on that sunny March day on the river, but one vivid, pleasant image of the day stayed with me.
After the speech, I let the large crowd disperse and took my time walking back to my car east on Bay Street with my oldest daughter, then about three years old. Bay Street was, of course, blocked off from all regular auto traffic because of the president's visit. Other than people walking from the event, it was deserted.
Suddenly a large black limousine came west on Bay Street, alone except for a motorcycle escort. As it passed, through the tinted windows I saw President Bush lean over his wife Barbara, wave and smile at us.
We were just a couple of people on a sidewalk. He could just as easily have hidden behind those tinted windows as he sped past. But he chose to make the effort to reach out to us, and that moment remains in my memory.
I ended up voting for Bush in that election, a vote I don't regret for a minute. Regardless of how much things have changed since then, I'll always fondly remember that brief, friendly wave from a president.
It was quite simply An Important Event. As is President Obama's visit next week. You can like it or not like it, but that's the way it is.
I never met James Holland, the retiring director and founder of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. But he is one of my heroes.
More correctly: Holland was himself the Riverkeeper. He began the organization a decade ago as a lifelong crabber and waterman in the Darien, Ga., area tired of seeing his livelihood destroyed by chemical and industrial effluent into his beloved Altamaha River.
Fed by the Oconee, Ocmulgee, and Ohoopee Rivers, the Altamaha is the second largest watershed on the east coast and the only undammed major river in Georgia. As a hybrid river of both alluvial and blackwater origin, it's also one of the most interesting waterborne adventures you can experience in the United States, hosting over 120 rare or endangered species.
After posting an exemplary record of holding industries accountable all along the 14,000 square mile watershed, Holland retires from the Riverkeeper effective this April.
His record of environmental stewardship on the Altamaha stands in stark contrast to the condition of the Savannah River, as documented in this week's cover story by our own Patrick Rodgers. We all could learn a lesson from Mr. Holland, and his work will be missed, though his legacy carries on.
For a heartfelt goodbye letter from Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy, go to www.georgiaconservancy.org.
For more info on the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which continues to protect the river, go to altamahariverkeeper.org.
A couple of weeks ago, there were some errors in a column Robin Wright Gunn wrote about the First City Network's Saturday Social events.
Following is a correction direct from the author:
"In the February 10th Hear and Now column, on the First City Network Saturday Social, I included incorrect information about one of the couples at the event, Gwen and Jo Ellen. The February Social was not the first that they have attended. Also, they moved to Savannah for a work opportunity for Gwen, not for Jo Ellen. I regret making these errors and thank Gwen and Jo Ellen for contacting me to set the record straight."
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