Bush hailed by Michiganians as ambitious statesmen, kind public servant
Michiganians are remembering George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at age 94, as an ambitious statesman and dedicated public servant who led the nation through the end of the Cold War as well as exemplified kindness and civility.
Bush ended up winning three Michigan Republican presidential primaries — one during his unsuccessful run in 1980, one in 1988 when he won the presidency and his last in 1992 when he lost his re-election bid. But his personal decency seemed to leave more of an indelible mark on those who met him than his politics.
Sandy Baruah recalled working for Bush as a young staffer on his 1988 campaign and again after he became the 41st president.
"What I will remember the most is not his monumental and world-changing leadership, but rather how he and First Lady Barbara Bush instilled in me and others who worked for them a standard of ethics, selflessness and commitment to country above all else," said Baruah, who now heads the Detroit Regional Chamber.
"The standard of decency, civility and service is one I still aspire to. The world lost a great human being and leader, the likes we are not likely to see again.”
Michigan was briefly home to Bush, a Navy pilot, in 1945 during World War II while he was based at Naval Air Station Grosse Ile after returning from combat in the Pacific.
As captain of his baseball team at Yale, he played in the two College World Series in Kalamazoo. Three decades later in Detroit, future President Ronald Reagan picked Bush as his running mate at the 1980 Republican National Convention held at Joe Louis Arena.
According to his wife Barbara, who died in April, he was told right before his convention speech that Reagan was going to tap Gerald R. Ford as his running mate.
"We went right back to the Pontchartrain Hotel and our whole floor was filled with many close friends and family. It was like funeral," Barbara Bush recalled in her memoir.
"George found Jeb in our bedroom really upset. ‘It’s not fair, it’s not fair,’ he said.
"George and I put on old clothes and I urged him to let us pack and get out of there. George gave both Jeb and me a talking-to: ‘We came to this convention to leave politics with style and we are going to do it.’ Almost immediately, the phone call came to our room from Ronald Reagan, and the rest is history."
Perhaps one of Bush's most obscure achievements came a few years later when he was offered a one-day baseball contract from the Detroit Tigers in 1984.
Bush had been hospitalized intermittently over the past few years for infections and other health issues.
Gov. Rick Snyder on Saturday ordered U.S. and Michigan flags to be lowered to half-staff for 30 days to honor Bush.
“George H.W. Bush was a great person who served his nation not only in the military and as President, but as a role model for all of us,” Snyder said in a statement.
“His commitments to family and country before, during, and after his presidency were inspiring. Sue and I send our sincerest condolences to the entire Bush family.”
'Tribute to public service'
Former three-term Michigan Gov. John Engler, who considered Bush a “dear friend,” called his life “a tribute to public service the old-fashioned way.”
“This is a man who, because he was the kind of person he was — the outstanding military record, the devotion to country, the devotion to family — really he is a bit of a throwback. There won’t be many more like him. I hope there will be, but I fear there won’t be,” Engler said in a 2017 Detroit News interview.
Engler is attending Bush's funeral in Washington.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser also hailed Bush's legacy.
"“Michigan lost an outstanding statesman," Weiser said in a Saturday statement. "President Bush was a beacon of light and freedom, the last of the Greatest Generation to serve. A grateful nation mourns with his family and celebrates his life today.”
Bush’s public service included two terms in Congress in Texas, a stint as United Nations ambassador, Central Intelligence Agency director, the first U.S. representative to communist China under President Richard Nixon and the leader of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal and after Nixon’s resignation.
Former Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, who served with Bush in the U.S. House said their friendship "was forged over countless games of paddle ball, wild game dinners and intense, yet respectful, policy debates."
"We were from a political generation that understood delivering for the American people was more important than political wins," Dingell wrote in a Sunday tribute in The Detroit News.
"The success of government and good public policy is the success of hard-working men and women."
Engler and his wife Michelle attended the funeral of Barbara Bush in Houston, who died April 17. Engler, currently interim president of Michigan State University, previously served on the board of the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation.
Engler lamented that George Bush only served one term, saying those four years will continue to be re-evaluated by historians because “it was a tricky period.”
“He managed the end of the Cold War in an extraordinary way. He did so, a lot of it, with virtual diplomacy and things that were sort of behind the curtain, not so much in front. That gave people the space to move,” Engler said.
Millions of people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were given “fresh breezes of freedom” because Bush managed the end of the Cold War so well, Engler said. “That was a profound change,” he said.
Tales from the trail
Bush served as vice president for eight years under Reagan — after finishing second to Reagan in the 1980 primaries — before his election to the White House in 1988.
Michigan backed Bush that year by an 8-percentage-point margin. Four years later, it would back Bill Clinton over Bush and start a string of Democratic victories that ended with Donald Trump’s win in 2016.
In 1992, the president landed at the former Kincheloe Air Force Base in Kinross to participate in the early morning Mackinac Bridge walk with then-Gov. Engler.
Bush and his entourage took over the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie the night before the walk and addressed the press the next morning, said Gary Heinlein, the former editor of the St. Ignace News and a reporter for The Detroit News between 1995 and 2015.
“He made some remarks about Engler’s conservative fiscal policies,” Heinlein said of Bush’s speech. “He said he had heard that Engler was so tight he squeaks.”
The president and governor had a head start on the rest of the crowd crossing the bridge. When the public was allowed to start crossing, Heinlein ran to match Bush’s long stride.
“I ran about halfway across the bridge, and I couldn’t catch up with him,” Heinlein said.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a longtime friend of the president and his family, said Bush “set an example of service over self.”
“Duty to his country was part of his DNA,” said Schuette, who is attending Bush's funeral this week. “But above all, what stood out, was his love and commitment to his family and to his friends and his strong faith.”
Schuette campaigned for Bush in his 1980 presidential run. The Michigan Republican “drove me around the state in his car and in his mother’s Jeep,” Bush recalled a decade later. “We spent more time on the road together than Hope and Crosby.”
Bush ended up winning the 1980 Michigan GOP primary, one of seven he won that year.
Michigan Republican strategist John Sellek said he helped staff Bush in 2000 as he campaigned for his son, George W. Bush.
"I just kept my head down and worked. On the second day, we opened early at a breakfast," Sellek recalled on Twitter.
"He smiled and said, 'It’s you and me again today!' That was the kindness I saw from him repeatedly. Rest In Peace, Mr. President."
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Bush’s "gentle approach called us to the greater good, and his strong example over the years inspired many, me among them, to enter public service."
"Despite reaching our nation’s highest office, his story was never of himself. He’d tell you of his love for Barb, how proud he was of his children and how enamored he was by his grandchildren, because George H.W. Bush cared about people more than anything else," said DeVos, former chairwoman of the Michigan GOP.
"His dedication to others and his love for country are why he and his family worked so tirelessly to improve educational opportunities, especially expanding the power of literacy, for all."
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, praised Bush for his career in public service and as a Naval aviator in World War II.
“I first met President Bush in 1992, right after the presidential debate in Michigan against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot,” Kildee said Saturday. “President Bush was as kind and generous then as he was later in life.”
Days in Michigan
Barbara Bush’s 1994 memoir recalled the couple’s days living in Michigan, saying they lived in rented rooms in Wyandotte and Dearborn during 1945.
“The first room we rented was dark, and the landlady took great pleasure in my mistakes,” she wrote.
In Dearborn, the couple stayed with Joe and Grace Gorgone and their children, with whom the Bushes stayed in touch.
“She taught me some of the things my mother thought I should be able to pick up by reading — things like how to cook, clean and wash clothes,” Barbara recalled.
Bush played baseball in college, and the sport brought him to Michigan several times. He played for Yale University in the first two College World Series, which were held on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Yale lost both finals, and in one, future Red Sox slugger Jackie Jensen “hit a ball that’s still rolling in Kalamazoo,” Bush recalled in 1989.
As vice president, Bush had a front-row seat to the Detroit Tigers' 1984 World Championship win over the San Diego Padres. He sat beside legendary Detroit player George Kell, who tossed out the ceremonial first pitch at Tiger Stadium in the deciding Game 5.
Earlier that fall, Tigers executive Jim Campbell had offered Bush a $1 contract to play for Detroit in 1985 at the request of American League President Robert Brown, who had seen Bush play in an “Old Timer Game” in Colorado and thought the offer would “tickle the hell out of him.”
Staff Writers Jonathan Oosting and Beth LeBlanc contributed.