President plays Peoria for a day
Bush visit includes surprise stop at restaurant, speech at Caterpillar plant
Wednesday, January 31, 2007PEORIA - With a massive security and police presence on the ground, Air Force One seemed to float above Bartonville delivering President George W. Bush to central Illinois right on schedule at 9:05 a.m.
Green Valley resident Matt Mangan framed the huge jet in his video camera viewfinder from his vantage point at Alpha Park in Bartonville, where 100 cars were parked.
"There it is," he said. "The sign of freedom. Awesome."
Red-carpeted stairs were wheeled to the door of the plane. When the doors opened, Bush stood in the entrance and waved, joined by U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, before stepping his way down to central Illinois.
On the ground, he was greeted by Republican officeholders, state Reps. David Leitch and Aaron Schock, state Sen. Dale Risinger, Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy and Mayor Jim Ardis. Also there to greet were two military officials, Bradley University President David Broski and Peoria librarian Roberta Koscielski, who was awarded a Volunteer Service Award by Bush.
LaHood, R-Peoria, exited the plane with Bush and watched as the president worked his way through the line like he was greeting a wedding party.
He briefly shook each of their hands, though he paused for a second as he reached Schock, commenting briefly on the fact that the suit-wearing 25-year-old had forgotten his coat.
It was 10 degrees outside, with a wind chill way below that.
An entourage 20 vehicles long awaited the president, his limo positioned near the front.
When the president reached Ardis, he said, "Mayor, it sure is cold in this town, why don't you get in the limo. I want you to ride with me."
A shocked Ardis jumped in the limo with LaHood and Bush, and the president instantly struck up a conversation. Ardis wasn't nervous, he said, mostly because he didn't have time to prepare.
Ardis described Bush as his kind of guy - "down-to-earth, very unpretentious."
"He plopped in and started talking to Congressman LaHood and I like we were long-lost friends. It was just very comfortable. It wasn't intimidating to be talking with him."
The vehicles carrying Secret Service, staff and the media made their way out of the Illinois Air National Guard base down Smithville Road.
In the frigid cold, people stood outside hoping for a glimpse at the presidential promenade.
Supporters leaned against their vehicles on the opposite side of the road, and parents, with their children, gathered at the end of their subdivisions, waving and clapping as he passed.
One man marched solemnly down the road, holding a full-size American flag.
The caravan moved onto Interstate 474 westbound, then to I-74 eastbound. As they traveled, Ardis told Bush about Peoria.
The economy is strong and unemployment low, he said. "But we continue to pound on the importance of our schools and we have significant challenges," he added, careful not to sugarcoat the description.
The mayor told him briefly about the struggle against crime, with four homicides already in 2007.
"He said none of that is atypical of any other city in the country that he visits," Ardis said.
He also gave the president a token gift, the lapel pin he always wears of a U.S. flag that around the edges reads: "St. Jude Children's Research Hospital."
"The significance was to acknowledge the affiliate here and how much they do for kids. And also, St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases," Ardis said. "I told him a lot of people consider our situation in the Middle East hopeless, but I have confidence in his decision and his resolve to finish what we started."
The caravan then exited onto Sterling Avenue and rolled past Northwoods Mall before turning left on Scenic Drive and into the parking lot of Sterling Family Restaurant.
One man lamented he knew something was up when he saw presidential adviser Karl Rove walking in just ahead of him.
Paul Weishaar, 71, of Peoria looked on wide-eyed as the president greeted diners. The crowd was near silenced as the president spoke, saying things such as, "How you doing?" "Nice to meet you." "How's the service?" and "Sorry to disturb you," as he made his way through the crowd.
Bush signed children's books for three little kids eating with their parents as a group of 20-some reporters and photographs - mostly from the White House press corps - elbowed their way to the front of the line to capture photos.
"That's really nice," said Weishaar, a Korean War veteran, as he smoked a cigarette and sipped on his coffee. "That's a good surprise."
He continued smoking as a small group of national reporters peppered the Operating Engineers Local 649 retiree with questions about the unemployment rate in Peoria and the effects of free trade, jobs and outsourcing. He didn't have a lot to say, noting about free trade that, "It helps here too," and with regards to outsourcing, "Every company is, really."
Bush ate breakfast with a small group of Peoria business owners, saying in a brief media appearance afterward that the "entrepreneurial spirit is strong" in Peoria.
News spread quickly that the president had chosen the restaurant for breakfast. Crowds formed in front of the mall across the street, but no one was allowed in or out of the restaurant while the president was inside. Dozens of people left their offices at the building across the parking lot, hoping to spot him on his way out.
"Who would ever think that he would pick Sterling Cafe?" said Holly Dozard, a Pre-Se Technologies employee from Marquette Heights.
Cyndi Miller of Morton, an employee at Pearson Professional Center, said she was just out for a cigarette break when she saw other office employees standing around. She was hopeful Bush would wave, but he simply darted to his limo after breakfast, offering only a quick view of the back of his head.
"I'm actually one of the people who still defends the president and what he does. I'm still for him," Miller said.
After breakfast, the caravan headed out again, with more supporters lining the street to cheer him on, including someone in a Chuck E. Cheese outfit.
They hopped back onto I-74 eastbound and took in the view of Peoria's skyline on the right before traveling over the Murray Baker Bridge into East Peoria. More supporters - and only a few protesters, the only ones seen all day - were stationed at the Huck's Now on the corner.
Before his speech to about 500 Caterpillar Inc. employees and special invitees, Bush met personally with a few employees and company executives and then toured the building where Cat's bulldozers are made. The normal hum of the factory - the whistles and roars of engines - was quieted as Bush made his way down the assembly line, greeting workers and occasionally stopping for a photograph. Two UAW women asked for a hug.
Before the tour, Rove chatted briefly with Caterpillar executives about whether Bush would drive one of the tractors. Rove reminded them Bush doesn't do much driving on his own these days and asked if Caterpillar's insurance was up to date.
"We figure he'll have a tendency to go to the right," quipped Tim Elder, director of corporate public affairs.
At the end, Bush, dressed in a bright blue shirt and without a tie, did indeed climb inside a "Black Iron Machine" bulldozer.
"I would suggest you move back. I'm about to crank this thing up," he told the gaggle of reporters following him. He moved it to the left and then the right, reporters scattering as he wheeled in their direction.
"I thought you were joking," one reporter yelled to the president. He just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
After the tour, which stretched about 30 minutes, Bush headed to the podium to deliver his speech. Flanked by bulldozers on both sides, the president talked about the state of the economy on the floor that typically is used to prepare goods for shipping all over the globe.
"The good folks here show others that in the manufacturing world, we can compete. And that's really what Americans wonder: Can you compete in a global economy? And my answer is, darn right you can, with good policy. And in this company, you've shown how to compete. And I want to spend some time explaining to the American people why competition is important and why America can compete with anybody, anytime, anywhere, and why it's in our interest to do so."
Afterward, Bush and his followers made their way back to the Air Guard base, where Air Force One was waiting. LaHood, who flew back with the president, said: "He could not have been any happier with the trip, other than the weather."
Though they were deep in conversation on the way to Peoria, LaHood said they rode in silence most of the way back.
The president, he said, spent the flight back preparing for the State of the Economy speech he will deliver Wednesday in New York.
"I'm still on cloud nine," LaHood said after landing back in Washington, D.C.