BACK THEN

When President Bush met the Mighty Mac

By Larry Chabot  •  Illustration by Mike McKinney
The death last November of George H.W. Bush stirred memories among those who remember one of his visits to the Upper Peninsula. His four trips here tied him for first among the presidential visitors and qualified him as an Honorary Yooper. Neither the visits or his most notable feat were mentioned in the funeral eulogies, but they were big news here.

In the fall of 1992, during his unsuccessful re-election campaign against Bill Clinton, Bush combined exercise with politics as the only president to walk the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge spanning the Straits between the peninsulas. A record high of over 80,000 people showed up to join him; witnesses said the bridge sagged noticeably in the middle (the combined weight of the walkers was probably 6,000 tons or so). For those who have never had the thrill, walking the center span is like being on top of a 20-story building.

Bush landed at the former air base at Kinross on Sept. 5. He and his wife Barbara spent the night in the Soo’s fabled Ojibway Hotel with a contingent of Secret Service agents nearby. A helicopter ride to Mackinaw City on a cloudy Labor Day brought the presidential group to Mackinaw City on the south side of the bridge. His party was driven across the span so he could join the south-bound march. (There is no record of the Bushes inquiring about the different spellings of Mackinac/Mackinaw.)

In the crowd was reporter Rick Liblong of Tri-City Times of downstate Imlay City, who had driven up for the event. He stayed in Mackinaw City the night before, hopped a school bus to cross over to St. Ignace and enjoyed a snack of donuts and coffee before starting out. “The president was a little late in arriving,” he wrote, “so we all had to wait. Finally, the president’s motorcade could be seen coming across the bridge from Mackinaw City, and when he arrived at the bridge walk staging area, he and the governor made a few remarks.”

One waiting family wasn’t happy with the long delay. Writing in the Michigan History Magazine special edition on the 50th anniversary of the bridge, the Holland family had decided to walk the bridge, but “little did we know that President George H. W. Bush was planning to walk the bridge. Security arrangements surrounding his walk delayed our start of the walk for almost two hours. Needless to say, the crowds … were a little perturbed.” The writer doubted that she would vote for the president because of the long wait.

Meanwhile, the president thanked whoever brought the coffee and gave a little speech at the starting line, noting that Gov. John Engler was there as well. “You know his reputation as a fiscal conservative,” said Bush. “When it comes to the taxpayers’ money, they say he’s so tight that he squeaks when he walks, so we are going to find out about that. [Laughter.]

“We’re grateful to see so many people ready for the latest ‘Big Mac Attack.’ We’re going across this thing. Barbara and I were over in Sault Ste. Marie, and she handed me my sneakers. And she said, ‘Just do it.’ Well, that’s what we plan to do this fall, I’ll tell you.

“The only other point I want to make is that this is Labor Day, and to those hard workers across this country, don’t let anybody tell you we are a nation in decline. We’re a nation on the rise. Our workers are the most productive anyplace in the entire world. So the big question is, how do we get this country moving so everybody that wants a job has one? And the answer is to spend a little less government money, tax a little bit less, and stimulate the economy and get it going. And we’re going to do that.

“Thanks for a great welcome. And I just can’t tell you how much we’re looking forward to this walk. We’ll set a good pace,” he promised. “And I plan to set that pace in November. We need you. Many, many thanks for your support. Thank you all. Now, let’s go. We’re off!”

Reporter Liblong told Michigan History Magazine that it was his first and only bridge walk. “Off they went,” he said. “I started a just few yards behind them. It was soon apparent that President Bush thought that this was the Mackinac Bridge jog, not walk. He walked so briskly that two dozen in his party had to jog to keep up. Mrs. Bush walked behind with others. He left Gov. John Engler and the rest of us in his wake, so I decided to enjoy the scenery and slowed down to a nice leisurely pace.”

The helicopter took him back to Kinross, from where they flew to Hamtramack. The president was still fired up over his successful walk. In his remarks there, he said, “Early this morning Gov. Engler and his wife, Michelle, and Barbara and I all joined about 80,000 for a walk across the great bridge up in northern Michigan. He didn’t mention it, but I beat the governor across the bridge. He says he was just being polite and hanging back with the First Lady.”

Later that day in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, still inspired by Big Mac, he told a picnic crowd that “Barbara and I started this morning up at the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. With us today, incidentally, is Michigan’s Gov. John Engler over there, another great Republican. We had a brisk 50-minute walk across that magnificent Mackinac Bridge. So when we say it’s great to be at a picnic, we know what we’re talking about. It’s nice to be here, no more walks.”

George H.W. Bush made three other trips to the U.P. He was the commencement speaker at Northern Michigan University in 1973, was at Mackinac Island in 1976 as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and returned to the island in 1995 as a private citizen. President John F. Kennedy was also here four times and encountered the Mackinac Bridge. In June 1960, he flew into Pellston, crossed the bridge by car and took a ferry to Mackinac Island and then returned the same way. So Bush and Kennedy were the only two presidents to cross Big Mac, and each did it twice.

Former president Harry Truman, in Sault Ste. Marie in 1955 for the 100th anniversary of the Soo Locks, was at St. Ignace for a ferry ride to the island. He missed the bridge by two years, but certainly must have watched the construction project.

The first president in the Straits area was the venerated Abraham Lincoln, then a Congressman from Illinois. Lincoln and his wife Mary left Buffalo, New York, on the side-wheel steamer Globe in September 1848. Originally scheduled for a Detroit landing, he changed their passage to Chicago, which brought him through the Straits in early October. His wife returned to the north country after his death, being seen in Ontonagon, Marquette, Munising and the Apostle Islands in 1867.

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