Many people have memories of when President George H.W. Bush came through Gainesville and Cornelia during his 1992 whistle-stop campaign.
But none, perhaps, is more vivid than those of Dick Mecum, who did double duty as Hall County sheriff and with C.V. Smith led the local Republican Party in preparations for the event.
Mecum was the point man to handle the estimated 18,000 people who jammed around the Norfolk Southern train depot on Industrial Boulevard in Gainesville. Many of those had lined the tracks just to see the “Spirit of America” train if not get a glimpse of the 41st president running for re-election against the Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton, and independent candidate Ross Perot.
Of course, Mecum had help from the Secret Service and the Capitol Police, who had contacted him days before to plan and coordinate security. They established inner and outer perimeters, and the sheriff would station deputies as snipers at strategic points.
Campaign staff asked for bleachers to be placed in front of where the train would stop for special guests to sit. Mecum said he borrowed some from East Hall High School. The elder Bush’s sons, Jeb and George W., got out of the train when it stopped and sat in those stands.
The president spoke from the back of the train for about 15 minutes, but the whistle stop lasted for about 35-40 minutes, Mecum estimated.
A gate with metal detectors was set up to let people near the depot to get a close-up view of the proceedings. Brian Rochester of Gainesville was one of the gatekeepers and took up unauthorized signs. A few protesters showed up with anti-Bush signs and some supporting Clinton or Perot.
Other dignitaries accompanied the president on the 18-car train, including Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
A retired U.S. Treasury agent, whom Mecum knew, had asked him to get his 10-year-old granddaughter on the train to meet President Bush. Mecum’s wife, Judy, then a captain with the sheriff’s department, was able to do that. She and Sheriff Mecum also were able to pose for pictures with the president.
The Atlanta Braves were in the World Series, and Bush wore a Braves jacket to celebrate the occasion with Georgians. He even performed a tomahawk chop while criticizing his opponent, Clinton.
High school bands entertained the crowd, and when the whistle stop concluded 30,000 red, white and blue balloons were released.
Mecum had 120 deputies on duty, and the Secret Service had 80 agents. “It was a mammoth job for the Secret Service,” he said, “but it was not that difficult, and we had no trouble with the crowds.”
The Times published a souvenir edition for the occasion, its front page headline reading “Bush Stops and Chops.”
Several thousand people also cheered the president at his whistle stop in Cornelia.
Bush’s Georgia campaign came just two weeks before the general election. Clinton won the state’s electoral votes and 43.47 percent of the popular vote to 42.88 percent for Bush. Bush carried Hall County with 16,108 votes to Clinton’s 11,214 and Perot’s 5,043. Bush also won Habersham County. In the 1988 election, Bush had won Georgia by a landslide and carried Hall County 17,414 to Democrat Michael Dukasis’s 7,782.
Mecum’s career included rubbing elbows with other dignitaries as he became a U.S. marshal after his service as sheriff. That included a visit with George H.W. Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, in the Oval Office in the White House. When the president asked Mecum where he was from, he replied, “Gainesville, Ga.” Bush apparently misunderstood and jokingly asked him to take care of his brother “down there,” meaning Jeb Bush in Florida.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Mecum said. “Do you correct the president of the United States?”
He described both father and son as very cordial and down to earth.
An Oakwood man, Grady Hughes, had served on the Navy aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto with George H.W. Bush during World War II. In a 1989 interview with The Times, he described the youngest Navy pilot as a daredevil, not a “wimp” as some had described Bush, who flew 58 missions during his service.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle N.E., Gainesville, Ga. 30501; phone (770) 532-2326; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.