What sounds like science fiction in 2017 actually happened on Sept. 5, 1972, when Richard Nixon came to town. The president, an enthusiastic consumer of Bay Area mass transit who would ride BART three months later, arrived to advocate for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“President Nixon took a brief ferryboat ride on San Francisco Bay on a windy, sunny day yesterday,” The Chronicle reported. “(He) posed for pictures on the top deck with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, and said with a grin: ‘I’ll never have a better backdrop.’”
That money quote came in the middle of a presidential re-election run, against Democratic Party nominee George McGovern. But his political motivation that day was to support the pro-environment Gateway West bill, which would turn more than 30,000 acres of Bay Area real estate into protected parkland.
And according to the president, it was the Democrat-controlled Congress that was holding up the proposal.
“There is no excuse for further congressional delay,” Nixon pronounced during a press conference on the ferry. “(It’s time to) get Congress to go along with what the majority of the people in this country want — to clean up our environment.”
The San Francisco trip was a quick one, with the president arriving at San Francisco International Airport, heading to Fort Point, then taking a quick trip on a Sausalito-bound ferry named the Golden Gate.
The Chronicle reported no protests; just 200 young supporters, probably students, meeting the president at the Presidio with chants of “Four more years! Four more years!”
The boat tour into the Bay included a group of guests more eclectic than “Gilligan’s Island,” with aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronaut Frank Borman, San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto and future secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld on board.
Nixon spoke to the press from a podium placed inside the ferry, with a presidential seal and a curtain erected behind. He also toured the deck, waving at passing sailboats on the gusty day, while allowing the wind to muss his normally shellacked hair.
The bill, co-authored by Republican congressman William S. Mailliard and Democrat Phillip Burton, passed and was an enormous success. Be sure to thank Nixon when touring the recreation area’s current 80,000 acres, which includes Muir Woods, Alcatraz, the Presidio, Crissy Field and the remains of Sutro Baths.
But the boat ride was arguably a dud.
Nixon’s San Francisco Bay photo ops and fiery messages were quickly upstaged by much bigger news: the slaughter of Israeli athletes by terrorists at Olympic Village.
“Terror at Olympics — ALL HOSTAGES SLAIN,” the Chronicle’s headline stated, taking up most of the top third of the page. A photo of Nixon was buried on Page 30.
More bad news: After the ferry ride was over, it was discovered that in the fuss to get the ferry ready for the president, the locked cash box was robbed of more than $800. And a week later, The Chronicle wrote about large taxpayer expenditures for the short political trip.
“A 45-minute ride by President Nixon aboard the Golden Gate ferry … cost the Golden Gate Bridge District $10,000, officials acknowledged yesterday,” The Chronicle reported. “The costs involved painting of the ferryboat so the President would have a photographic backdrop free of rust strains, as well as test runs for the boat ride.”
But it was still a good political year for Nixon – maybe his last one.
He was elected that November in one of the largest landslides in recent political history. And along with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Nixon in 1970 signed an executive order for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Remember the that next time you walk through the Marin Headlands, and enjoy the real estate development-free views: The president who resigned in disgrace was also an environmental warrior.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @PeterHartlaub