MORGANTOWN — Neil Bucklew still remembers the time he and George H.W. Bush ran a number on the Secret Service.
Well, check that, said Bucklew, who served as WVU president from 1986-’95. He didn’t disrupt the motorcade protocol one bit. The then-vice president of the United States did.
And he did it all the time.
It was 1988, and Bush, who faithfully served Ronald Reagan for two terms, was embroiled in the middle of his run for the Oval Office against Michael Dukakis — the Massachusetts governor who managed to bottle some of that Kennedy magic as he was making his own go for the highest office in the land.
No candidate emerged unbruised.
Joe Biden was tagged out on a charge of plagiarism regarding his speeches on the stump.
And after reports of Gary Hart’s womanizing hit the wires, he was done too.
Bob Dole, Bush’s closest Republican contender, famously snarled, “Stop lying about my record,” during his campaign against the man who would best him for the nomination.
There was the Willie Horton ad.
But there was also the sunny optimism of Bush when he was out among the people.
He was a son of Connecticut privilege and a war hero who worked hard at being a regular guy despite his prep school, Ivy League pedigree.
True blue (back then)
West Virginia in ’88 was still solidly on the Democrat side of the ballot.
Save for John F. Kennedy’s legendary campaign swing here in 1960, the presidential candidates who were Democrats pretty much stayed away, because they knew they didn’t have to worry.
Ted Kennedy did campaign here for Jimmy Carter in 1980.
One of Walter Mondale’s sons served as a north-central West Virginia stand-in for his dad four years later.
Dukakis dispatched his daughters to Morgantown also in 1988, and in May of that year, the VP himself called on the University City.
Bush wanted to learn everything he could about West Virginia, Bucklew recalled.
Morgantown, being a key medical hub for the region, plus the home of WVU, the state’s economic-driving flagship university, seemed a logical choice as home base for the day.
“And it was a full day,” Bucklew said. “We started in the morning, and it didn’t end until well into the evening.”
The candidate toured engineering and research facilities because he made his name in the Texas oilfield sand was interested in clean-coal technology.
Same for the Evansdale medical campus and all its research labs.
“He knew we had a lot of health issues as a state,” the former WVU president said.
Bush, Bucklew said, was always moving, shaking hands, smiling, asking questions. During the university tours, he was a laser beam of attention.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Bucklew said. “He was very attentive. When he listened, he listened.”
Then came the car ride.
“Hey, Neil. Why don’cha ride up here with me? C’mon. The guys don’t mind.”
Except, the “guys” — the Secret Service detail assigned to him — did, actually.
Bush, according to the aforementioned protocol, was supposed to ride by himself in a car that was always changed and placed in different order in the motorcade or entourage.
It was a security measure.
No civilians allowed in the car with the Veep.
Not even university presidents.
The man who was a heartbeat away from the Oval Office cheerfully disregarded that rule each time out.
Bucklew said he’s been thinking about that visit a lot in the days since Bush’s passing.
He agrees with all the tributes about the politician’s humility and civility.
“Everything you’ve heard is true,” he said.
“He was an ‘easy’ person to be around. He was cordial. He could talk to anybody, and he did. It was always, ‘Tell me about your family.’ ”
‘They just blow right past you’
Bill Helmick, a Morgantown retiree who had a career in law enforcement in Baltimore, had a similar meeting with the president-elect.
Bush brought one of his grandsons to the city for an Orioles baseball game, and Helmick, a special operations commander in the department, was working security on the city’s end.
The two shook hands and chatted briefly.
Was Helmick a supporter?
“I wasn’t paying much attention to politics at the time. I just know he seemed genuine. A lot of them today don’t have that touch. They just blow right past you.”
Last word, last ride
Bush’s state funeral was Wednesday in Washington. A family funeral is today in Houston, the 41st president’s adopted hometown.
After that, a specially outfitted Union Pacific “George Bush 41” locomotive will transport his body to his Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, where he’ll be buried next to his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Robin, who was 3 when she died of leukemia in 1953.
The train won’t blow past Hufsmith, Magnolia, Navasota, Todd Mission and the other little towns and no-towns along the way. It will proceed at a stately, steady 28 mph.
Bucklew liked that Bush didn’t blow past the people he met in Morgantown and at WVU on that marathon May morning, afternoon and evening 30 years ago.
Not long after the visit, a large envelope with a Washington address was plopped on his desk at Stewart Hall.
It contained an autographed photo of the two and something else: A handwritten note of thanks, from the vice president.