A long history in South Florida
Former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday, had a decades-long relationship with South Florida that began long before his climb toward the presidency.
It began in 1943, when the young ensign trained at what was then the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station — now Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport — and went on to become the Navy’s youngest pilot. As vice president, Bush stopped nearby, holding a 1981 business roundtable at the iconic Lester’s Diner on State Road 84.
Later, as president-elect in 1988, the first place he visited after the election for a brief vacation was the oceanfront town of Gulf Stream in Palm Beach County. Though the nation was treated to pictures of Bush fishing, he reportedly didn’t catch anything.
And as a former president, he and his wife, Barbara, visited with students at Delray Beach’s Morikami Park Elementary School in
2004, one of many stops in the area over the years.
Barbara Bush died April
17. Her husband died seven months later at his home in Houston.
The former president was drawn to South Florida for many reasons, said Kevin Foley, a developer who used to live in Palm Beach Gardens. Bush’s mother, brother and uncle had homes on Jupiter Island, and many of his friends, schoolmates and people he’d met in public service also spend time in the area, Foley said.
South Florida, in return, was often — though not always — kind to the man who became the nation’s 41st president.
Delray Beach is home to George Bush Boulevard and a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway named after him. In 1988, the year Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis for the presidency, Bush won Broward, Palm Beach and Dade counties.
But by 1992, voter sentiment shifted and Democrat Bill Clinton won the three South Florida counties on his way to the White House.
Aside from the former president’s son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the South Florida politician who may have known him best was former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican who represented Broward and Palm Beach counties. Shaw began his 26-year congressional career in 1980, in the same election in which Bush was elected vice president.
Shaw met Bush earlier in the campaign — when he supported Bush for the Republican nomination over Ronald Reagan, the man who ultimately prevailed and became president.
A long friendship ensued. “Some people you just click with,” Shaw said in an interview before he died in 2013.
When Bush was president, Shaw and his wife, Emilie, sometimes joined George and Barbara Bush in the private residential quarters at the White House for takeout Chinese food. Other times it was movies. And Emilie Shaw occasionally played tennis at the White House with Barbara Bush.
When Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, Shaw telephoned the president and told him he needed to get down to Dade County to see the destruction.
Former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw
“He’s probably the only man who’s even been president who it didn’t go to his head. He was the same old George through and through,” Shaw said. “There wasn’t an arrogant bone in his body. Just the same George Bush that was there before he went to the White House. That is all too rare in Washington [where] … it seems the higher people go, the more arrogant and standoffish they get and full of themselves they get. But that never happened to George Bush. Not for a minute. Not ever.”
Foley, who relocated to Martin County, got to know Bush while working as a Reagan staffer in the 1980 campaign. He later worked on scheduling and advance work on trips for Reagan, Bush and Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, nationally and internationally. He was with the president-elect on that 1988 trip to Gulf Stream and many other visits to the area.
“I don’t think it comes through the media how good and generous all of them are and were,” Foley said. He said he most remembers Bush for “his kindness. He was a decent, decent man.”
Former Broward County Commissioner Ed Kennedy also backed Bush over Reagan in 1980. He most remembers Bush’s demeanor. “He was very presidential. He was not nasty. He was the gentleman politician, which you don’t find too often,” Kennedy said in an interview before he died in 2018.
As time passes since Bush’s presidency, Kennedy said Bush “more and more has the stature of a president.”
Longtime supporters saw Bush as the last president before the current era of intense, slash-and-burn politics in which many people in the opposite party exhibit a constant, visceral hatred for the occupant of the Oval Office.
Shaw said he admired Bush as someone who was willing to work with all sides to get something done — even when it was politically perilous, as when the president agreed to a deal that included higher taxes despite a campaign promise not to raise taxes.
“It got him in trouble [with the conservative Republican base]. He was willing to compromise on some of these issues, which was eventually his undoing. But it shows his ability to listen and make law,” Shaw said. “You can spend you’re whole life saying no. But George Bush wasn’t that way. He was a good listener. And he worked hard to understand the other side and we did some good things back then.”
And Bush remembered, and was loyal to, his friends, Shaw said. Though he hadn’t seen the former president in a while, Bush sent him a warm note when he lost his 2006 re-election campaign.
“He loved being the president,” Shaw said. “And he’ll go down as one of the great presidents.”
“He’s probably the only man who’s even been president who it didn’t go to his head. He was the same old George through and through.”