In advance of today’s state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush, several Chippewa Valley residents fondly recalled taking advantage of opportunities to see or meet the nation’s 41st president during campaign stops in the region.
Laurie Forcier, a former Eau Claire County GOP chairwoman and current officer with the state party, said she painted dozens of signs and even helped light torches along railroad tracks in advance of Bush’s Halloween night whistle-stop campaign rally in Chippewa Falls a few days before the 1992 presidential election. Bush chugged into town aboard a campaign train dubbed “Spirit of America.”
“We were one of his last train stops, so it was very special,” Forcier said. “Of all the politics I’ve done in my life, that was such a neat event because it had such an old-fashioned feel. He spoke from the back of a rail car, and it was just very nostalgic.”
The crowd, which Forcier said included White House chief of staff James Baker and press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, packed in close to the railroad line near the Amoco Foam Products Co. plant. The Leader-Telegram reported the event attracted an estimated 18,000 people.
Forcier remembers it was a chilly day and yet the outdoor event attracted a large crowd of people eager to get a glimpse of a sitting president. Bush seemed confident and full of energy in the days before his re-election bid was spoiled by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Forcier said.
“I don’t think anybody really thought President Bush would lose,” she said. “There was this fabulous, celebratory mood. It was just so, so exciting.”
Shirley Starck of rural Cadott was there that day and also recalled being caught up in the energy of an enthusiastic crowd just three days before the 1992 election.
“People had little horns and confetti, and we were all very excited,” Starck said. “It was the first time I got to see a president, and it was probably the same for a lot of people.”
Her son, Bob Starck Jr., said he brought his three children that day to see a rare presidential appearance in the Chippewa Valley, even though it meant ending trick-or-treating early.
“I got a little push-back at first, but once the president arrived and they understood the importance of it, they were on board,” said Bob Starck Jr., also of rural Cadott.
Both Starcks said they were drawn to Bush because they believed he was a highly principled man who was dedicated to his family and his country.
Harlan Reinders, a former Eau Claire County Republican Party chairman, shared a story of a personal encounter with Bush he believes demonstrated the former president’s ability to relate to everyday people.
After a March 1988 news conference with Bush at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, Reinders, station manager for WWIB radio at the time, said a White House photographer offered to take pictures of attendees with the then-vice president.
After seeing Bush put his arm around a female reporter for a photo, Reinders recalled remarking, “I suppose if I were a woman you’d put your arm around me too.”
Bush’s response to Reinders — “Come on over here, baby” — prompted a laugh from everyone in the room, Reinders said.
“It shows you that this guy was very unpretentious, like a good old Joe,” Reinders said. “He took his job very seriously, but he smiled a lot, and that was the thing that impressed me. He could even get people to smile at him that were his enemies.”
Indeed, the Washington Post reported this week Bush was known for extending his genuine manner to those with whom he often clashed, including the late Ann Devroy, a UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate who covered the White House for the Post. In his memoir, Bush wrote that when he was president Devroy “gave me heartburn many mornings when I opened the Post.”
But in 1996, when Bush learned that Devroy had cancer, he set aside the bitterness and wrote to her, “I want you to win this battle. I want that same toughness that angered me and frustrated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through your fight,” the Post wrote.
Brian Westrate, chairman of the 3rd Congressional District GOP, said one of his earliest political memories involves his mother taking him to the former Ray Wachs Civic Center in downtown Eau Claire for a 1988 campaign appearance by Bush, who then was President Ronald Reagan’s vice president.
“We worked our way to the front of the rope line, and I got to shake his hand,” Westrate said. “I was 10 at the time, and I do remember thinking it was a big deal.”
Westrate said Bush was an “incredibly intelligent, incredibly qualified” president.
“He was perhaps the tail end of maybe the moderate era of politics where there was still a lot of across-the-aisle agreement,” Westrate said, noting that approach continued in retirement when Bush worked alongside Clinton on humanitarian causes important to both of them. “He leaves a legacy as a good man, a good husband and a good father.”