George H.W. Bush had strong ties to Southwestern Pennsylvania
Whether hustling into a Kmart in Westmoreland County with Secret Service agents in tow to buy a belt, attending a golf outing in Ligonier Township with late friend and Latrobe golf legend Arnold Palmer, or attending a Republican campaign fundraiser in Pittsburgh, former President George H.W. Bush had a decades-long relationship with Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Bush, 94, served as U.S. president from 1989-93 and vice president under President Ronald Reagan from 1981-89.
He died in Houston late Friday.
GOP political insider John Denny, who worked on the presidential campaigns of both Reagan and Bush in the 1980s in Pennsylvania, has many fond memories of the 41st president. Denny was special assistant to Elsie Hillman, the late Western Pennsylvania Republican matriarch, and now operates his own Pittsburgh-based consulting firm, Denny Civic Solutions.
“First, I can tell you he was definitely one, absolutely true gentleman in the finest sense of the word. And, secondly, he always maintained a great sense of humor. He would often include these funny notes along with much of his correspondence,” Denny said.
Even during his intensive-care hospitalization for shortness of breath in January 2017, that humor was evidenced in a personal note he sent to the incoming Trump administration apologizing for not being able to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Bush wrote that doctors told him that traveling to Washington, D.C., “will likely put me 6 feet in the ground,” according to news reports.
Denny also said that Bush was a “very sensitive, emotional man.”
He recalled when Bush came to Pittsburgh in 1996 to commemorate Hillman’s retirement as national Republican committeewoman. Bush was the featured speaker at a breakfast at the Hilton in Downtown Pittsburgh.
“After only about four minutes into his talk, he got so choked up he had to stop,” Denny said. “He was talking about faith, family and friends and just became so choked up he had to stop. … I’ll never forget that.”
In 1987, when Bush was still vice president, he was formulating his upcoming campaign to run for president the next year. Denny said he was among various Republican state leaders invited to the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
“We’d be sitting there and he’d be the one who would get up and serve you the Lone Star Beer on the porch. He did the grilling himself, and if you had to use the washroom, George or Barbara would take you in the house and show you the way. They did not have any staff that did that. … They did it themselves,” Denny said.
Hillman and Bush “were like third cousins … really distant,” Denny said. They really grew to know one another through Elsie’s older brother, Toby. Both Toby and Bush were oilmen in and around Midland, Texas, and became close friends.
“As I recall the story, at the 1964 Republican convention, Elsie got a bunch of delegates for Bill Scranton and Toby and George Bush did the same in Texas,” Denny said. “They build a friendship and political relationship through that.”
Bush became chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1974, “which was really a rough time for the GOP” following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Denny said.
“Those were definitely troubling times for the party,” he said. “Elsie worked with George through that period, and George was able to get the party through that period, and Elsie was always impressed with that.
“After that, she was always loyal to Bush.”
In 1980, with Hillman’s support, Bush won Pennsylvania’s Republican primary over Reagan.
But it was largely with Hillman’s assistance that Bush eventually became Reagan’s running mate as vice president, Denny said.
Throughout his political career, Bush attempted to deflect statements he made during the April 10, 1980 Republican primary debate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he branded Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics.”
Many in Westmoreland County were startled during the 1980 campaign when the Reagan-Bush campaign jet landed at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe — then considered a Democrat stronghold — with both candidates aboard for a private fundraiser. Bush reportedly stopped before boarding the plane and spoke and posed for photographs with people dining at the airport restaurant before departing.
Shortly after Reagan’s election, Bush again traveled to Pittsburgh to give the keynote address at Duquesne University’s honors convocation. Bush made national headlines there, too, lamenting that the worst human rights offender in the western hemisphere was Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
“Make no mistake, whatever the faults of existing in regimes in Central and South America regarding human rights, the Castro Communist alternative would condemn those regions to the most repressive form of government,” Bush said.
When Bush later decided to run for president, there were numerous news reports of a fundraiser organized by Hillman at the Westin William Penn hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh.
That fall, Bush made sports headlines when he visited the clubhouse of the Pittsburgh Pirates and lefthander Dave LaPoint quipped to the sitting vice president, “I love your beer.”
On Nov. 20, 1999, Bush with his wife, Barbara, flew into Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to attend the funeral of Palmer’s wife, Winnie. Word got out after he was spotted with Secret Service agents in the Unity Township K-Mart store to buy a belt.
Then in 2001, Bush again flew into the Westmoreland airport to play in a Palmer golf outing in Ligonier Township.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.