OWENSBORO — George H.W. Bush came, saw and concluded: “I am the man to represent the values of Kentucky.”
He just might.
The signs were manifest among the overflow crowd of some 11,000 that greeted the vice president Tuesday at this city’s riverfront English Park. There was usual sea of campaign-issue, blue and white Bush-Quayle signs, but also a swell of the homemade variety — from “God Bless George Bush” to “Stop The Liberal Baby Killers.” Hottest bumper sticker was a “Gun Owners for Bush” item. Least-liked sign had to be “Bush-Noreiga in ’88.”
Western Kentucky is not Republican rich, bit it’s down-home conservative and a Reagan-Democrat bastion. That should do for a Republican redux in these parts. While Michael Dukakis was playing Peoria in front of city hall, George Bush was playing to Middle America — after some Cissy Lynn songs and a free barbecue by the banks of the Ohio River. Blueblood and bluegrass no longer seemed incongruous.
It was a pep rally for the status quo — and it worked wonderfully. The well-scrubbed, white crowd — embellished with high school bands, cheerleaders, ex-Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn and county-and-western patriotism — gloried in a celebrity visit and the sport of liberal-bashing. No lip reading needed here.
George Bush hadn’t added any new applause lines — just more credibility in delivering his right-wing credo. As he intoned, he’s for school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, capital punishment and a strong national defense. He’s against gun control, new taxes, abortion and American Civil Liberties Union card carriers.
So’s his audience.
Moreover, Bush flat-out looks presidential these days, and his handlers have largely de-whined him. America now knows he was a genuine war hero before he started building his well-touted, high-profile, government-service resume. He said he thought he did “reasonably well” in his recent presidential debate — and then let the crowd override his self-deprecating assessment in rousing fashion. There was no need to prove macho credentials with any “kick-ass” rhetoric. “Don’t let THEM take it away” carries the day.
There was also no sign of voodoo logistics. The well-choreographed event, now a Bush campaign staple, was precision perfect.
The vice president, aboard the Executive Queen riverboat, arrived in mid-“God Bless America” by country singer Jody Miller. The concrete stadium seats and adjacent hillside were packed. The crowd had been entertained with bad Hoosier jokes, prodded with anti-Dukakis one-liners, pumped by the “Notre Dame Fight Song” and “On Wisconsin,” and inspired by the “Star Spangled Banner.” Local politicians beamed as only they can; they had helped pull off Owensboros’s first presidential campaign rally since 1952.
And when it was over, and Cissy Lynn and the Coaldusters were back on stage and George Bush and friends were waving good bye from the Executive Queen , good old American free enterprise took center stage. While the GOP picked up the tab for 1,000 bowls of burgoo, 2,500 pounds of barbecued mutton and pork and plenty of soft drinks, it wasn’t nearly enough for the overflow crowd. Into the breach came the local Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn, which set up a separate food stand. The entrepreneurial Moonlighters sold sandwiches to the thankful, hungry hordes who had gorged themselves on patriotism but had missed out on the free eats.
It was that kind of a day — and campaign to date — for Vice President Bush and the GOP.