Back to the Maine House : To the Bush Family, Kennebunkport Is Much More Than a Vacation Spot
Just a walk up the coast from the village proper, on the spectacular granite outcrop known as Walker’s Point, is where George Bush scampered over the rocks and played as a boy.
It’s where he also bounded over the rocks and played this weekend. And where he intends to play in the years to come.
For here on the clean, salty, rocky seacoast of Maine, 40 minutes up from New Hampshire and 20 minutes away from the busy turnpike, at the 11-acre Bush compound, is where the next President of the United States sets his “anchor to windward.”
Ask George Bush what he loves about the place and he is apt to talk first about his beloved fishing and his hunger for the throttle of a fast speedboat. But in the end, he talks about roots and his family.
“Part of what I really am is here.”
His mother was born down the way from Walker’s Point and married the President-elect’s father at the picturesque St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, located on its own oceanfront point nearby. For that matter, Bush’s daughter, Dorothy, or Doro as she is called, was married in the same church.
For a man who sought his fortune in the oil business and fame in politics, for a man who has lived in Beijing and Bakersfield, in Midland and Washington, for a man who has moved 28 times in his adult life, the constant for George Bush has been Kennebunkport. Every year of his life except when he was away in the Pacific during the World War II year of 1944, Bush has come home at least once.
Maine Is the Place
In his campaign biography ghostwritten by Victor Gold, the President-elect describes Maine as the place that binds the Bushes together:
“We were a close, happy family, and never closer or happier than when we crammed into the station wagon each summer--five kids, two dogs, with Mother driving--to visit Walker’s Point.”
This week, during his Thanksgiving retreat here, George and Barbara Bush tried to tell the story their way. They opened their compound to the press. The ground rules were set by the Bushes--no cameras or notebooks, no quotations of their remarks. But reporters were told later they could recount their impressions of the 1 1/2-hour visit.
So, some impressions:
Like many towns, Kennebunkport--a long, skinny town growing on a twisting shoreline--is two distinct worlds. There is the tourist village, with T-shirt shops, lobster pot restaurants and charter boats for whale watchers. Building codes keep it quaint--clapboard and brick and picket fence. In summer, the picture is filled in with rampant tourists, choking traffic and merciless mosquitoes.
Then there is the other world out on the promontory of Walker’s Point, a flattened thumb of solid rock jutting into the Atlantic. It dominates the northern reach of the town. Trees grow slowly here on account of the long winters and thin topsoil. So unlike other homes of the famous, this one is not hidden away. It is visible from the road, strikingly so.
Hence a jam of tourists and journalists and police and Secret Service agents. And that is in the chill of November. One can only shudder to think what is coming this summer when the local population typically balloons from 4,000 to 35,000, and probably more now.
A large wooden ranch gate opens on the entry road into Walker’s Point. The road is freshly blacktopped.
Several houses occupy the property. The main house is three stories, built by Bush’s grandfather shortly after the turn of the century of weathered wood and stone in the style of a grand hunting lodge. It rests on the very tip of the point with a 270-degree picture-window view of the Atlantic.
A few years back, family heirs were thinking of selling. Bush himself quickly bought the deed. He said he wanted a place where the family could always come and, if needed, a place to fall back.
Behind the main lodge is a smaller house where Bush’s mother still lives during the summer. And nearby is a modest guest cabin called The Wave. It was once connected to the main building, but the walkway was severed by a monster, once-in-a-century storm that lashed the Maine coast in 1978 and heavily damaged the Bush properties.
A smaller, two-story cabin sits 100 yards inland and serves as Bush’s office. An adjacent building houses aides and serves as a security center. Many of the countless plaques presented to Bush are stored here.
An assortment of other cabins and storage shacks dot the landscape. Hardened guard posts ring the edges of the property, surrounding a tennis court, pond, small swimming pool and Mrs. Bush’s cherished garden patch.
A private dock is located on the south side of the property facing Walker’s Bay. In summer, the clear, icy water here is prime lobster ground.
Those waters are also home for Bush’s beloved twin V-8, 28-foot-cigarette boat, Fidelity.
On the wall of his home is a 8x10-inch photograph of Bush and his boat, six feet out of the water leaping over a wave. Showing off once, he put a reporter in the hospital with a back injury. Other guests have walked off with broken glasses, bruised backsides and a vow never again to set foot on a boat with him, so harrowing is the experience.
“I’ll make a solemn pledge,” he said on his arrival back here this Thanksgiving, his first visit since the election. “I’m going to keep driving that fast boat.”
Boating is the chief recreation in this lobster port village. And so boats and Bush and Kennebunkport go right back to the beginning.
A Love for Boats
Speaking to a gathering of local friends and neighbors at a welcome-home rally last week, Bush recalled, as if it were yesterday, standing on the banks of the Kennebunk River when he was 6 years old. He saw a bigger boy named Booth Chick, who was 10 or 11. “And he was racing up and down this river in a little skiff with a great, big, overpowered outboard motor on it.
“And I said someday I’d like to be able to do that.”
Three years later, at age 9, Bush and his brother Prescott, then 11, were allowed to take the family boat, Tomboy, out of the bay at Walker’s Point and into the Atlantic by themselves.
Bush has loved boats ever since, and fast, not fancy, is his taste.
His taste in fishing runs much the same--fast and ferocious.
He is apt to show you the scar on his right hand. A razor-toothed bluefish bit him a few summers back when the vice president got careless in landing one during a blue’s feeding frenzy.
It is the fish about which writer John Hershey produced a best seller, describing them as constructed of “flexible steel” with great flanks of muscle and “saw-edged caverns” for mouths.
They drive Bush to ecstasy.
Lure of Fishing
Some have observed that it is in those moments of fishing for blues that Bush is most thrilled and giddy. Typical, perhaps, was one summer day on the water here. Each time his electronic fishfinder buzzed that he was over a school of blues, Bush echoed the buzz with gleeful mouthful of warnings to ready-up on the fishing lines, or to change lures, or to reel in, or let out. He tore though his tackle box looking for some magic multi-hooked plug to entice a bluefish from the deep. And Barbara Bush cautioned: Don’t let him see if you get seaweed on your hook.
But today it is the house, not its owners, that first commands attention as reporters are taken into the 26-room main residence.
This is a comfortable, old storybook shoe of a summer house if there ever was one.
Call it informal, comfortable, personal, perhaps just ever so New England seedy.
Mrs. Bush was once asked about the wealth in Kennebunkport. “This is not real money,” she explained. “This is not the Hamptons.”
No, this is a house where you need not check the bottom of your feet before entering. This is a house where the beer is frosted in ice chests out on the porch and where Millie the springer spaniel hunts for scraps on the dining room floor.
And in such an easygoing house, a President-to-be can be himself.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston dined privately with the Bushes last week. He recounted dropping to his hands and knees along with the President-elect and the next First Lady as all three lumbered about looking for Millie’s ball.
A fire roars in the big stone fireplace for the press open house. Old wooden lobster pots are covered with glass for end tables. A large trestle table is the focus of the main living/dining room. Most of the house, including an adjacent frilly green lanai, are closed off for winter.
Charming the Reporters
Bush has gone shopping himself for cheese and wine at a local shop called the Tipsy Mouse--hamming it up for the TV cameras and charming most of the reporters who, were it not for him, would be spending the holiday with their families.
Reporters browsed through shelves of books, taking note of the mix of light fiction, political tomes and coffee-table art books. Many are inscribed. Of particular interest is a book about presidential politics with a note from a friend: “To George, who has waited so long and so patiently for this job.”
Generations of family photographs dominate the walls--Bush with long sideburns, Bush fishing, the kids, the grandkids, the parents, Bush with the VIPs. Many are faded, fingerprinted and dog-earred. They are piled up, stacked up and shoved on shelves. Even a big house can be overfilled.
Upstairs in the attic-like children’s “dormitory,” Mrs. Bush has Scotch-taped a typewritten set of rules for the youngsters. Don’t leave wet towels on the floor. Help Paula the housekeeper. Notify the kitchen if you are eating inside or want a picnic out. And have fun.
Many who have covered the Reagans at a standoffish distance from behind velvet ropes are stunned speechless to be given license to roam the old wooden house--even into the bedroom--of the next commander in chief.
Some reporters stop and draw wisdom from a needlepoint pillow sitting a small love seat: “Enthusiasm is the greatest asset--more than power of influence or money.”
Outside, Bush is determinedly pursuing the motto.
He has power and influence and money. But at this moment he is enthusiastically leaping over the seawall to lead reporters across the rocks and tide pools of Walker’s Point.
These rocks are the most special of places--solid and unchanging through 60 years of a tumultuous, challenging and mercurial life. He knows the rocks and where to step. He has even given some of them names, like the big flat one he calls the “aircraft carrier.”
Here he can pick through the flotsam of Atlantic storms, and look just offshore to Bumpkin Island, alive with blubbery seals. There is the Cape Porpoise lighthouse up the coast. And there is the endless mystery of the tide pools, now frozen over.
“We’d spend long hours looking for starfish and sea urchins, while brown crabs scurried at our feet,” Bush once wrote about being young on these rocks.
“There was the wonder of the tidal pools, the smell of cool salt air, the pulsating sound of waves crashing ashore at night.”