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The year was 1989 and Montana was at the peak of its centennial celebration when President George H.W. Bush stood on the Capitol steps in Helena and called for a “new environmental spirit.”

Bush arrived in Montana on Sept. 18, less than a year into his presidency, greeted by then-Gov. Stan Stephens, and delivered a speech shifting between jokes and seriousness to a crowd estimated in news reports at more than 18,000.

“It’s good to be back under the Big Sky,” Bush told the crowd. “Looking out at the Sleeping Giant, with your historic statehouse a marvel of Montana granite, sandstone and copper standing here at our back. And you can feel the history of this great state, its land and its people.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, then Montana’s newly elected secretary of state, recalled meeting Bush shortly before the speech. Cooney brought his young son along to greet the president and had a warm exchange.

“I really was struck by how gracious he was, unassuming, wasn’t full of pomp and circumstance and was really just very down to earth,” Cooney said.

While Bush’s appearance was a big deal for Montana, his unpretentious approach impressed Cooney. He noted it as a trait among many in power that manage to keep their perspectives as everyday people.

“President George H.W. Bush was a very decent human being,” Cooney said. “You could disagree with his policies, but he was a hard man to be disagreeable with. We can certainly learn by that, we can certainly be practicing that much better today.”

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise was a Republican member of the Montana House of Representatives when Bush spoke at the centennial. Her most vivid memory of the visit was her son appearing in the photo of Bush planting a ceremonial tree on the Capitol lawn. Her impression of the late-president was similar to Cooney's 

“My impression was that he was so gracious, not a slick polished speaker, but not especially scripted like some,” she said.

By 1992, Geise was heading the Montana Republican Party and traveled to Billings for the president’s speech there shortly before Bush’s unsuccessful run for a second term. The toll of the race showed clearly on Bush’s face, and in a surprising conversation with then-chief of staff James Baker, Giese was told the campaign was just informed of their pending loss.

“He was not the most fluent speaker, but he was sincere, there was no doubt about that,” she said. “What really impressed me particularly about that time in Helena was that he was speaking from the heart, and by the time he was speaking in Billings, he was speaking from his gut, it was such a brutal race.”

In Helena, Bush joked about fishing and the centennial cattle drive across the state — quipping that “There’s a herd back on Capitol Hill that I’d like to move in my direction.”

Bush marveled at Montana as a symbol of pioneering destiny that still shows across its vast landscapes.

But then his tone shifted as he turned to the environment, lamenting the pollution threatening water, air and wildlife and proclaiming Montana a place that understands the value of environmental protections.

“The conservation ethic runs deep here,” he said. “In the past two decades, Montana has enacted some of the most advanced environmental statutes in all of the 50 states. The citizens of the Big Sky State understand it’s not man against nature — it’s man and nature.”

The consequences of pollution have ramifications across borders, he said, mentioning rain forest destruction, airborne pollutants and “the threat of global warming.”

“We know now that protecting the environment is a global issue,” he told the crowd. “The nations of the world must make common cause in defense of our environment. And I promise you this: This nation, the United States of America, will take the lead internationally.”

Bush went on to announce several environmental initiatives, including curbing air and water pollution and bringing the Environmental Protection Agency and Peace Corps together to work on international environmental challenges.

“One hundred years ago, Montana was a land where man sought the treasure that lay beneath the Earth,” he said. “And today it’s the land itself we treasure — a living legacy we must preserve and pass along.”

In the crowd that day was John Gatchell, longtime staffer with the Montana Wilderness Association. He was not sure what to expect.

“It was a huge deal, the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in Helena … and I went down because it was the president of the United States talking and it was our centennial year,” he said. “He delivered a very inspiring speech that played right into Montana’s own history and the conservation ethic in the state.”

What resonated with Gatchell was Bush’s seeming call to action, using Montana as an example for the nation of working toward sensible environmental protections.

“It’s a kind of conservatism that is rare but we need it, which is conserving the land and the waters and the air that sustain all of us,” Gatchell said. “It’s something that can’t be a partisan issue because we’re all sustained by those things, so when he says to leave the water and air in better shape for future generations, it was a great message from the late President Bush.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin