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Michigan’s fond connection to H.W. Bush

The first thing you noticed about George Herbert Walker Bush was that the guy was huge. There he was, dwarfing over everyone as he methodically worked a tiny hotel conference room near the Detroit Metro Airport, crammed full of Michigan GOP national convention delegates.

He and they were there, in 1980, at the first and so far last national political convention staged at the brand-new Joe Lewis Arena. The Republicans would dominate the place for a week that summer, long before the Red Wings added ice to the floor and two nets at each end of the rink.

Mr. Bush’s goal was to somehow get his name on the ticket with the guy the GOP was about to anoint as their candidate for president. His name was Ronald Reagan, and making sure the Michigan delegation was on his side was Bush’s job one. He moved briskly from table to table, doing what office-seekers do — pumping hands, exchanging a brief, “How are you?” and, “Sure would love to have your support,” and making sure that everyone got a piece of him. It was retail politics at the lowest level, but it needed to be done.

And everything was going along smoothly when one of those out-of-nowhere Michigan thunderstorms rumbled in, knocking out all the lights in the room, which gave everyone a pause, but Mr. Bush and his sidekick did not miss a beat. In the dark, in what was to become a metaphor for what would happen later in the week, he and Michigan Gov. Bill Milliken labored on with the task at hand.

The two were kindred souls, cut from basically the same moderate Republican cloth that was showing signs of wear and tear, and they knew it. However, they didn’t much want to talk about how “their” party was slowly becoming somebody else’s party, eventually leaving them to lament a decidedly more conservative Republican Party.

But they were not about to bail out of the party. They would lock arms and continue to suggest policies of bipartisan cooperation that dominated the 1970s until the Moral Majority and religious right got its hooks into the party machinery and moved some of the gears to the far right, minus the bipartisan grease to make it run smoothly.

There had already been nasty confrontations at a Michigan GOP convention four years before the national conclave, during which Pastor Pat Robertson’s forces locked horns with the Milliken/Bush wing of the party — which at one point, saw both sides head to separate rooms to hold their own rump conventions.

Political correspondents loved the story: A party deeply divided and all of it, warts and all, unfolded in front of everybody. The Bush and Milliken troops were not amused, but the times were changing and they weren’t.

The Traverse City governor and his East Coast/Texas-transplanted companion were no strangers to the campaign trail, where Michigan voters came to respect them both. Mr. Milliken loved to tell the story about how the two of them were working a room when one of those ultra-conservative types corralled both of them and unloaded his “wisdom” while the two stood there, out of respect, taking it all in.

Afterwards, as the governor recalls, “George leaned over to whisper in my ear, ‘We’ll put him down as a maybe.'” It was classic and stoic and so much the two of them. Their never-give-up, optimistic take on everything would serve them well, but, as the convention week wore on, it became clear that they needed more than that to nail down the second spot on the ticket. What they really needed was convention delegates.

And then things took a real turn for the worse.

Working the convention floor on the night of the nominations, you picked up a buzz that began in the Michigan delegation and, before long, had moved from the floor all the way up to the lips of Uncle Walter sitting in his CBS anchor sky booth.

“There is speculation that former President Gerald Ford may join the Reagan ticket in an unprecedented co-presidency arrangement,” Mr. Cronkite said, adding gas to the already rampaging rumor moving from delegation to delegation.

As a reporter embedded in the Michigan delegation, there was one assignment. Get to the governor and his minions and confirm this story. Enroute to the front of the Michigan contingency, there was Max Fisher, a major major funder of the state and national Republican Party. It was worth a try.

With the din of the convention crowd filling the hockey rink with a deafening noise, the shouted question was, “Mr. Fisher, what do you know about this Gerald Ford stuff?”

Turns out, he was one of the guys promoting it. Bingo.

Then it was on to the governor. He was aware of it and, “not for attribution,” he was willing to confirm it was in the works and just might happen.

The “news” from the convention floor was broadcast live to all of Metro Detroit via WWJ NewsRadio 950.

And then, a follow-up report about an hour later — with a gulp: “Our original story was wrong.”

Before the night was over, Mr. Milliken was basking in the nomination of George H.W. Bush for V.P. It was a win for moderation, but, eventually for those two, there was no happy ending.

Decades after the fact and now out of office, Mr. Milliken revealed that he and the former President Bush were not on the best of terms.

Broken were the moderate ties that bound them together and helped to propel Mr Bush into being a favorite with the Michigan electorate on both sides of the aisle.

The once pro-choice Mr. Bush had flipped. He was now pro-life. Some accused him of caving in to those very forces that he and Gov. Milliken had fought for years to mute.

Mr. Milliken did not join the chorus. He was not that kind of guy. But, privately, the pro-choice Michigan governor and his one-time friend were not friends anymore, thus ending an incredible chapter in our state’s political history that now, officially, ends with the passing of our 41st president last week.

Skubick covered the 1980 national GOP convention in Detroit and had a ringside seat in the Michigan delegation to the George H.W. Bush story.

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