KENNEBUNKPORT — At midday Thursday it was business as usual at the scenic pullover on Ocean Avenue, with its sweeping views of Walker’s Point and the Bush family compound. The parking area was nearly filled with sightseers’ cars and a gaggle of cyclists. An Italian-speaking family crowded around an outstretched smartphone, trying to get the perfect shot of themselves in front of Maine’s most famous family retreat.
Unnoticed in the background, two tiny figures pushed a third from the parking lot in a wheelchair, disappearing and reappearing from view behind the compound’s shingled cottages before arriving at the main home. A glance through binoculars confirmed that George H.W. Bush, family patriarch and 41st president of the United States, had returned home.
The former president and his family had a big evening of hosting ahead of them: a reception and dinner for 300 top donors to son Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, which hours later would announce it had raised a staggering $114 million in the second quarter of the year.
Guests at the two-day event, which continued Friday morning at the Colony Hotel, each raised at least $27,000 for the candidate by “bundling” $2,700 donations from their own friends and contacts, the maximum individual contribution that can be made directly to a campaign. Among them were former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, former Florida Sen. George Lemieux and Mike Duncan, onetime chairman of the Republican National Committee, who rode down Ocean Avenue to the compound Thursday evening in a chartered trolley bus.
Kennebunkport has again become a key venue for presidential politics, just as it was when Jeb’s father and brother ran and served as leaders of the Free World. Walker’s Point, the touchstone for America’s most successful political dynasty, even has a new cottage nearing completion, Jeb’s own two-story, 3,000-square foot home, suggesting the former Florida governor expects to spend time here.
If so, the Walker’s Point compound offers more than dramatic sea views and presidential-level security: It’s a campaign asset like few others, says Karen Sebold, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas who studies presidential campaign fundraising.
“Walker’s Point is historical, a place that’s held summits for world leaders under two presidents, so an event there is more of a draw than one at some hotel,” Sebold says. “If you get an invitation to that, you will probably be saying ‘Yes.'”
“It really gives Jeb a fundraising bump compared to other Republican candidates,” she adds. “He already has bases in Florida and, through his brother, Texas, but the Bush Club House in Maine lets him grab the northeastern Republicans, too.”
DEEP ROOTS BY THE SEA
The Bush family’s ties go deep here. The clan was effectively born at St. Ann’s by-the-Sea, the Episcopal summer chapel just down the shore, where Jeb’s grandfather Prescott Bush married the daughter of the fantastically wealthy investment banker Herbert Walker in 1921. Prescott, who himself served in the U.S. Senate, summered at his in-laws’ compound, where his wife, Dorothy Walker, Jeb’s grandmother, had been born, where Jeb’s father, George, learned to walk and his older brother, George W., decided to convert to Evangelical Christianity after seeing house guest Billy Graham preach. Jeb’s own son, George Prescott Bush, was wed at St. Ann’s in 2004.
During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Walker’s Point became the “summer White House” and drew the international press corps here to cover visits by British Prime Minister John Major and Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. George W. Bush created his own compound in Crawford, Texas, but still hosted Russia’s Vladimir Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Maine estate in 2007.
Now with a third Bush running for the White House, Kennebunkport finds itself back in the media limelight. Jeb is also reportedly meeting this week with former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the compound, and other high-profile visitors will likely pass through its gates as the campaign progresses.
“Donors support candidates for many reasons and campaigns try to create special experiences for donors to honor them for their support, and it’s hard to think of a better way to do that than to invite them to Walker’s Point with the first president Bush and Mrs. Bush as secondary hosts,” says political scientist Brendan J. Doherty of the U.S. Naval Academy, who studies presidential campaigns. “It’s a way to make them truly feel like honored guests and it’s different enough to establish a personal connection between the presidents and heads of state and between the candidates and their donors.”
For all her family’s political assets, Doherty notes, Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a homestead equivalent to Walker’s Point.
TOWNSPEOPLE DON’T EXPECT BIG CHANGE
But with the Bush retreat already a major tourist draw, some living here say they really don’t expect to notice much difference, even if Jeb wins the 2016 election.
Sitting on the steps of the white clapboard Masonic Lodge in downtown Kennebunkport, architect Harvey Wells recalled chance encounters with the elder President Bush, including one at a now-defunct Dock Square grocery store where he and Barbara dropped in to pick up milk. Daily life for residents, however, generally carries on unaffected by the presence or absence of present and former presidents, he says.
“They come and go, and sometimes they block off traffic if they’re going someplace, but you really don’t know they’re here until after they’re here,” he added.
His friend, retired attorney Phillip Nystrom, chimes in at this point. “The only thing you notice is when the president’s aircraft are flying around here; otherwise it doesn’t make any difference.”
One retailer who didn’t want to be identified did notice a change between when a Bush was in the White House or not: an increase in visits by “politically engaged” tourists who make strong statements for or against the president to gauge a local person’s reaction. This, the retailer said, can be annoying.
Back on the Masonic Lodge stoop, Wells thinks of another minor irritation when Walker’s Point is in the spotlight. “You can’t walk from here down to the bridge without someone asking, ‘How do we get to the Bush house?'”