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Before Obama, Savannah hosted many presidents
Obama Heal
President Barack Obama sits down with other customers as he visits Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah, Ga., Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Next to Obama is Savannah, Ga. Mayor Otis Johnson. - photo by Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. - The president's first visit to Savannah was staged as a rollicking celebration - he was praised in 15 toasts at a special dinner and later surrounded by nearly 100 swooning ladies at a ball in his honor.

No, the city's special guest wasn't President Barack Obama. It was George Washington, who was greeted by the song "He Comes, The Hero Comes" when his ship arrived for a four-day visit to Georgia's oldest city in 1791.

Sure, folks in Savannah have been buzzing for the past two weeks about Obama's trip Tuesday to the "Hostess City of the South."

But the truth is that Savannah, the colonial-era city where Georgia was founded in 1733, has played hostess to a long list of American presidents in the past two centuries - from Washington to George W. Bush.

James Monroe, the nation's fifth president, visited in 1819 to inspect what would become the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an address here in 1933 in celebration Georgia's bicentennial year. Jimmy Carter surprised St. Patrick's Day bar-hoppers in March 1978 when he strolled into Pinkie Masters Lounge and gave an impromptu speech standing atop the bar.

Still, Obama's four-hour stay in Savannah was greeted as anything but ho-hum by the locals. It was his first trip to Georgia as president and Savannah was one of the few cities he carried here in the 2008 election, in which the state overall voted for John McCain.

"Even if it was snowing, I'd be here," said 58-year-old Pamela Williams, a retired nurse who stood outside Savannah Technical College in chilling rain hoping to catch a glimpse of the president's motorcade. "I'm here to support my president."

Williams huddled with about 70 people wearing coats and holding umbrellas outside the college, where Obama took a short tour before addressing an invitation-only audience of 300 on his plan to offer rebates of up to $1,000 to homeowners making energy efficient renovations.

The dreary, gray weather didn't escape the president's notice either.

"It's great to be back in Georgia, but where's the sun, guys?" Obama quipped as he took the stage.

Aside from his college stop, most of Obama's Savannah itinerary was kept under wraps until it happened. The president surprised the lunch crowd at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, a mainstay for rich Southern cooking in the downtown historic district, where Obama told reporters: "I don't want any lectures about my cholesterol. Don't tell Michelle."

The president also met with managers and employees of Chatham Steel, one of the oldest metal service centers in the Southeast.

Obama is at least the 18th American president to visit Savannah, Georgia's fourth-largest city with a population of 131,000.

Savannah carried much more political clout from the time of its founding until the early 1800s, when it was Georgia's most populous city, said Stan Deaton, senior historian for the Georgia Historical Society. It remains one of the most unique and recognizable Southern cities, Deaton said, which may explain why Savannah keeps drawing presidential attention.

"It has staying power, it has name recognition," Deaton said. "It doesn't necessarily mean Savannah has economic or political power, but there is something symbolic about a president visiting a city like this."


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