First Lady Michelle Obama delivered the commencement address Saturday afternoon at the University of California, Merced. This was the first full senior class graduation ceremony at the tenth campus in the U.C. system. The school admitted its first students in 2005. Press from around the world covered the event. Nevertheless, this was not the first appearance by a First Family member in Merced.
President Jimmy Carter's Town Meeting in Merced: July 4, 1980
On July 4, 1980 (Independence Day), President Jimmy Carter held a town meeting with Merced County residents in the Merced College gymnasium. President Carter spent the previous night at Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson’s residence and flew in Air Force One to Castle Air Force Base in Atwater (now closed). He took Marine One to Merced College. A transcript of the Merced town meeting is available on the internet courtesy of “The American President Project” at U.C. Santa Barbara.
President Carter, himself a peanut farmer, enjoyed the flight over the fields and orchards of Merced County. He said, “You don't know how it makes a farmer feel – who's been in Washington now for 3 1/2 years, to fly in a helicopter over this beautiful country. Not only do you have the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background all during your lives, the gateway to Yosemite, and some of the most beautiful earth that was ever created, but the productive land that you have here is also an inspiration to me as a President and also one of the greatest natural resources that we have.”
Referring to the holiday, President Carter said, “What has let our Nation make this progress is the same thing that's important on this Fourth of July here in Merced, and that's the partnership that exists between people and government. And there's no better way to celebrate our birthday, in my opinion, than a direct relationship between the people of this great community and the President of the United States.”
Audience questions during the hour-long event covered a mixture of local, national and international topics, including solar energy, synthetic fuels, the Stanislaus River and New Melones Dam, the use of cruise missiles against the U.S.S.R., the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the hostage situation at the U.S. embassy in Iran, welfare and health care reform, immigration, American image and strength and racial minority progress.
An eleven-year old Merced girl asked a question about the U.S. boycott of the summer Olympic games in Moscow. President Carter replied, “I'm sorry this happened, but there are times when our country must stand for principle and for what is [r]ight.”
The president also joked with a persimmon farmer, seeking a personal connection. “We grow wild persimmons on my farm in Georgia. I've eaten them all my life,” he said.
This was President Carter’s 19th town meeting. Carter then flew from Merced to Modesto for a Democratic National Committee fundraising brunch at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Damrell; Mr. Damrell was a local attorney. Marine One landed at Christine Sipherd Elementary School in Modesto. Congressman Tony Coehlo, who represented Merced and Stanislaus counties, was his escort for most of the day. Following the Modesto event, the President raced across the country to Miami to address the 71st annual N.A.A.C.P. convention. President Carter’s diary for July 4, 1980 is on the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library website.
Then-Senator John F. Kennedy made a short speech in Merced during the 1960 presidential campaign. It was part of Kennedy’s two-day “whistle stop” train campaign through the Central Valley and Bay Area, inspired by a similar trip by President Harry Truman in 1948 that helped to wrest the state from the Republican Dewey-Warren ticket. Kennedy began in Dunsmuir on September 8th and spoke from the rear train platform in Redding, Red Bluff, Chico, Marysville, Sacramento, Martinez and Richmond en route to the Civic Auditorium in Oakland. On September 9th, he spoke from the rear platform in Stockton, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno and Tulare en route to the Bakersfield airport. He spoke that night at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. He campaigned in Los Angeles and San Diego the following two days, before leaving for Texas where he gave his famous religion speech in Houston. His opponent Richard Nixon stopped in Fresno the Friday before the election (he had to cancel his Bakersfield visit) and won California narrowly.
City of Merced: A Presidential Election Bellwether
U.C. Merced students launched an aggressive, multimedia promotional campaign to woo First Lady Michelle Obama to speak at the graduation ceremony. One factor possibly influencing her decision to attend is the fact that the city of Merced and the greater San Joaquin Valley are a presidential election bellwether. In the past five presidential elections (1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008), the cities of Merced, Modesto, Madera and Fresno have voted for the national winner.
Barack Obama won all six cities in Merced County (Merced, Atwater, Livingston, Los Banos, Dos Palos and Gustine), a feat that was last accomplished by Hubert Humphrey in the close 1968 presidential contest against Richard Nixon and George Wallace. The San Joaquin Valley was heavily Democratic in the mid-20th century. Although Merced County overall is now a “swing” or “toss up” area, Livingston (the “sweet potato capital”) has voted Democratic in every presidential election after 1960. Presidents Nixon and Ronald Reagan failed to sweep all Merced County cities in their 1972 and 1984 re-election landslides. President Carter won Livingston and Los Banos in 1980, but lost Merced (the site of his town meeting) to Reagan. In 2008, Obama won Atwater, which had eluded Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, along with the county’s other five cities.
U.C. Merced Grand Opening in 2005: Governor Schwarzenegger's Snub
College grand openings and first graduations make for good political events. On Labor Day in 1995, for example, President Bill Clinton inaugurated the California State University, Monterey Bay campus before attending the Alameda County AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic in Pleasanton. A major factor behind President Clinton’s decision to dedicate the CSU-Monterey Bay campus was the fact that his then-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta is a Monterey County native who ultimately located his Panetta Institute for Public Policy there.
Nonetheless, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declined an invitation to dedicate the U.C. Merced campus on Labor Day in 2005 and received much criticism for it. In an apparent effort to quell the bad press, the Governor made a hastily scheduled visit to the U.C. Merced campus a few days before it opened.