When H.W. came to A-Town

The late George H.W. Bush made a 1980 stump speech at Alpena High

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz This photograph shows the front page of the May 10, 1980 edition of The Alpena News, featuring coverage of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush’s campaign stop at Alpena High School.

ALPENA — As the nation mourns the death of President George H.W. Bush this week, some in Alpena recall a visit he made here while campaigning to become the Republican candidate for president.

He failed in that bid, but months later became vice president and eventually president.

In the spring of 1980, while trailing in the polls to win the Republican nomination, Bush decided to make a stop in Alpena to campaign.

With the primary only 11 days away, Bush hoped to garner enough support in rural communities to narrow the gap between himself and the eventual nominee, Ronald Reagan. After a heated primary, Reagan selected Bush to be his running mate and the two went on to win the White House from President Jimmy Carter.

Bush became president after two terms as Reagan’s vice president, and served one term, from 1989 to 1993, before being voted out of office and replaced by President Bill Clinton, who served from 1993 to 2001, when Bush’s son, George W. Bush, won the presidency.

Bush arrived in Alpena on May 9 and held a rally at the high school that about 4,000 people attended, according to The News’ report on the rally. Many of those who were in attendance were high school students who had decorated the gym for Bush’s arrival. At the time, Bush was a former congressman, former ambassador to the United Nations and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

At the rally in the Alpena High gymnasium, Bush criticized Carter for his handling of foreign affairs and pledged to negotiate the release of 50 American hostages then being held captive in Iran. He said he boost the economy by seeking “relief from regulation that is killing off our ability to compete.”

And he tried to rally support for his candidacy, telling attendees: “It is still relatively early (in the primary campaign) and nothing is locked in. We are going to show Reagan right here in Michigan that we can turn this thing around.”

In advance of Bush’s visit, Secret Service agents scouted the community and the venue and worked with local police, who helped to provide security detail.

Phil Wiser was a patrol officer for Alpena Police Department at the time and played a role in making sure the future president never faced any danger. He said an opportunity to meet Bush never developed, but it was still a highlight of his career helping protect him.

“I was working night patrol and I got called in early for Secret Service duty and it was all hands on deck for the visit,” Wiser said. “Even though I never had a chance to meet him, I considered it a big honor to serve him the way I did.”

During the visit, Secret Service agents patrolled the grounds of the school, including some with sniper rifles on the roof.

Wiser said the advance team pinpointed any place near the school where a potential threat could come from and coordinated with local authorities to make sure those areas were monitored adequately.

“They had sniper positions set up and even checked out things like manhole covers near the school,” he said. “They paid a tremendous amount of attention to detail.”

Wiser said he couldn’t remember exactly how Bush arrived at the high school, but he believed he landed at the airport and a motorcade consisting of local police and Secret Service escorted him to the rally.

Since Bush’s visit, no presidential candidate, president or vice president from either party has stumped locally.

Former first lady Laura Bush visited Alpena in the mid-1990s, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin campaigned for President Donald Trump during the summer of 2016.

Michigan 1st Congressional District Republican Chairman Jesse Osmer said the party always tries to draw candidates from high-profile national races, but, typically, candidates for governor and Congress are the biggest to campaign in northern Michigan.

He said getting candidates of Bush’s stature is difficult because of the political landscape of the area.

However, “we are getting more buzz from candidates, and I think, one day, we’ll see a presidential candidate or his running mate here, but the bottom line is most of the time the 1st District is considered safe, because it is very red,” Osmer said, meaning the region almost always votes Republican in national races. “Candidates go to places more purple to drum up support and votes. In northern Michigan, that is Traverse City.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com.