October 14, 2019
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How Maine shaped the life and presidency of George H.W. Bush

Lawrence Jackson | AP
Lawrence Jackson | AP
In this May 11, 2008 file photo, former President George H.W. Bush arrives on the South Lawn of White House in Washington. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush.

Although he was born in Massachusetts and began his political career in Texas, the 41st president is, arguably, as close as the United States has come to having a Mainer in the White House.

The life and presidency of George H.W. Bush, who died Friday, Nov. 30, at his Houston home at age 94, was deeply shaped by his time on Maine’s rocky coastline.

It’s a connection that dates back to his childhood, when Bush spent summers at the Walker’s Point compound his family has owned in Kennebunkport since the late 19th century. The coastal enclave served as the summer White House during Bush’s presidency from 1989 until 1993 — and as an important place of stability for him and his wife, Barbara, who moved more than 30 times to accommodate his work as a businessman, CIA director and elected official.

“Walker’s Point is a home away from home, an anchor to windward,” Bush told the Bangor Daily News in 1990. “I cherish the time Barbara and I spend there.”

After joining the Navy following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, making his fortune off Texas oil and serving in a variety of high-level jobs in the federal government, Bush returned to Kennebunkport on the heels of political defeat and on the cusp of victory. He purchased his family’s estate after losing the 1980 Republican primary, and came to spend more time there as he prepared to run for vice president alongside Ronald Reagan.

During his own presidency, Bush would host foreign dignitaries at Walker’s Point, including United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Francois Mitterrand and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But even in those days the compound remained a retreat — a place he could be with family and friends, and contemplate decisions away from the clamor of Washington, D.C.

In 1990, for instance, Bush retired to Walker’s Point three days after ordering that American forces be deployed to stop Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

“It was his think tank,” said Ken Raynor, a local golf pro and longtime Bush family friend. “He’d sit out and listen to the ocean breezes and the crashing surf.”

Maine was also a place of joy for Bush.

He frequently made impromptu excursions into Kennebunkport to shop, play golf or dine at Mabel’s Lobster Claw and other restaurants. That penchant for unofficial gallivanting kept the Secret Service scurrying, especially after Bush became president, but it endeared him to the locals.

After leaving office, Bush was known to enjoy steamers at Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, where he’d sit outside and take in the wide-open view of Perkins Cove — something that had been considered a security risk when he was president. Restaurant co-owner William “Tim” Tower recalled once making an off-hand comment to Bush about how Tower’s father’s birthday was coming up.

A few days later, William “Billy” Tower had a voicemail from the president singing “Happy Birthday,” according to his son. “To have someone that important treat to you as if you are one of his friends, it’s pretty humbling,” Tower said.

Raynor, who spent years golfing and fishing with Bush, assessed the president’s behavior differently: “I don’t think he ever understood that he was famous.”

In retirement, Bush continued to a be regular fixture on the links and in the waters off Walker’s Point, where locals recall him reveling in the power of a series of high-speed boats, all named Fidelity. In July 2010, his 38-foot fishing boat ran aground in heavy fog and briefly became a curiosity for tourists as it sat stranded by low tide on a beach near the family’s summer home.

The former president also had close ties to the Maine GOP and for decades offered his support to Republican candidates here.

John McKernan is credited with helping reinvigorate Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988. Bush returned the favor two years later by supporting then-Gov. McKernan’s re-election bid, helping him retake the Blaine House in a grueling contest against Democrat Joseph Brennan, who preceded McKernan as governor.

Bush also lent support to Republican Charlie Summers’ unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican and McKernan’s wife. Summers was defeated by Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

During his 1988 run for the presidency, Bush captured Maine’s four Electoral College votes, but the state was not kind to him when he sought a second White House term in 1992. The incumbent Republican president placed third behind Democrat Bill Clinton, who served the next eight years as president, and third-party candidate Ross Perot, although he did better in York County than in the state as a whole.

Even some Mainers pleased with Clinton’s victory were, nonetheless, disappointed to see Bush fall behind Perot in the state that was his summer home. Among them is Barry Hobbins, a former Democratic lawmaker from Saco and current state public advocate, who later became friendly with Bush through their shared work to support the University of New England.

For Hobbins, the president stands among a small group of moderate Maine Republicans who were broadly admired for the ability to work across the aisle and, for years, defined the Grand Old Party in New England.

“I believe back then, representatives in Maine emulated the likes of Margaret Chase Smith and George Bush,” said Hobbins. “There’s a whole generation of young leaders who looked to and respected him and Barbara — and that’s coming from a Democrat.”

Bush, who played first base for Yale University in the 1947 and 1948 College World Series, was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. While spending summer breaks from college in Maine, he played for the Kennebunk Collegians, a group of college and prep school students who played similar teams around the state.

Like his father did, 43rd President George W. Bush often visits Walker’s Point and, while in office, hosted foreign dignitaries there, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

During the 2007 meeting with Putin — dubbed the “lobster summit” — the younger President Bush and his father took the Russian leader out in the family’s boat to cast fishing lines along the rocky coast.

“Fishing is good for the soul,” the elder Bush reportedly said at the time. “Fishing is good for one person to get to know another.”

During both Bushes’ presidencies, the presence of Secret Service agents and the crush of the national press brought business but also hubbub to Kennebunkport — sometimes straining the small community.

In his final years, the elder Bush’s reputation was also somewhat marred by a number of women, including some Mainers, accusing him of having grabbed their backsides during photo opportunities after he left office. A spokesman for Bush issued an apology following the 2017 accusations.

But the family remains well thought of throughout Maine and beloved in their summer community, where they are remembered as active and gracious members.

After Barbara Bush’s death in April, a spokesman said the president felt it was important to return to Kennebunkport. And when he was hospitalized in late May, Bush sent out a message saying he very much regretted missing the town’s annual Memorial Day parade.

“He’s just such a part of Kennebunkport,” said John Downing, an area Realtor who knew Bush for decades. “When you see him on the street he’d wave to you and call you by name.”

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter at: @JZBleiberg.

Correction: This story previously misstated the year in which Bush’s fishing boat ran aground.


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