KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — George H.W. Bush is 24 years removed from the presidency, and what passes for Washington politics these days makes his single term seem a quaint relic by comparison.
But among the 3,000 people who live here year-round, nostalgia isn’t what binds the town to George and Barbara Bush, now 93 and 92. Nostalgia is about the past, and the former president is very much here, in the present, in a relationship with Kennebunkport that appears to grow warmer and deeper by the year.
“There’s a natural feeling that he’s one of us. Many of us marvel at that fact,” said Tom Bradbury, director of the local conservation trust. “He’s probably the greatest man I’ll ever know.”
Streams of tourists still motor down Ocean Avenue to gaze at the Bush compound on sea-sprayed Walker’s Point. “Reagan Bush ‘84” caps still can be found in a souvenir shop. And 5,000 visitors a year traipse through the First Families Museum, located in an 1853 mansion that features exhibits about the Bushes and Kennebunkport history.
Despite the frailties of age — the 41st president has been hampered by vascular parkinsonism, which mimics Parkinson’s disease, and Barbara has begun riding a motorized scooter — the couple seem to be everywhere in Kennebunkport.
They helped dedicate a rebuilt bridge in May, and they bundled up in cold and light rain to watch the Memorial Day parade at month’s end. Barbara Bush attended a charity event last week, and the couple brought one of their frequent distinguished guests — John Major, a former British prime minister — to church services recently.
Walker’s Point is protected by the Secret Service, of course, but it’s an accepted fact of Kennebunkport life that George and Barbara Bush will periodically sally forth from the estate, which the former president’s great-grandfather and grandfather — David Davis Walker and George H. Walker — bought in the late 19th century.
Now, as another summer unfolds, those appearances carry greater poignancy for townspeople who know they will not last forever.
“There will definitely be a missing link” once the appearances end, said Kirsten Camp, executive administrator of the Kennebunkport Historical Society, which runs the First Families Museum. “They’ve left an indelible impression on this town.”
It’s an impression that has been nine decades in the making. The former president has traveled to Kennebunkport every summer of his life except one — that being 1944, when he was shot down in the Pacific as a naval aviator during World War II.
The visits are not short: George and Barbara Bush are encamped in Kennebunkport from May to October, which means they have plenty of time to immerse themselves in civic life. Former president George W. Bush usually arrives for two to three weeks in the summer, and Camp said he has been seen more often in recent years.
The elder Bush told the Globe in an e-mail that the town “has always been a part of my life — a place where our big, close family has always come together surrounded by good friends and the wonderful townspeople.”
“In that sense,” he added, “Kennebunkport has been my anchor to windward throughout a full and challenging life. It has kept me grounded and focused on what is really important.”
That grounding has been demonstrated time and again, townspeople said.
‘The town, and its people, are a part of my heartbeat. It’s always been that way, and thus may it ever be.’George H.W. Bush, on Kennebunkport, Maine
It surfaces in the thank-you parties for the plumbers, electricians, and carpenters who keep Walker’s Point humming — a “who’s who of regular people in Kennebunkport,” said Steve Kingston, who owns The Clam Shack near busy Dock Square and supplies seafood to the Bushes.
“He’ll ask, ‘What’s going on in town? How are the people doing?’ ” Kingston said.
The grounding also shows in movie nights that the Bushes host for friends and townspeople at a local cinema.
It shows in small ways, too, such as when Bush gave up his seat to Bradbury’s wife before a concert at Walker’s Point in the early 1990s.
“That’s not very gallant of me,” Bush said when he spotted Shirley Bradbury standing at the rear. He circled around, led her to his front-row chair, and said, “Shirley, you sit here. I’ll stand back there with Tom and negotiate food prices.”
Bradbury recalled the episode with a smile. “It was generous and kind and funny all at once,” he said.
Parties at the estate usually bring surprises, as locals mix with luminaries who often pass unrecognized. One time, Bradbury said, he began with the usual small talk as he chatted with another guest.
“What do you do?” Bradbury asked. “I’m the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” came the reply.
“And you?” the chairman asked. “Oh, I own a grocery store,” Bradbury answered.
Tim Harrington, a high-end developer who divides his time between Kennebunkport and Miami, said he has been impressed by the family’s graciousness toward others — whatever their status.
The couple routinely go backstage after shows at the Vinegar Hill Music Theatre, a venue co-owned by Harrington, a founding partner of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection. They ask performers about their families, where they’re from, and other questions that show a genuine personal interest, Harrington said.
“It’s not ‘me, me, me.’ It’s ‘we,’ ” Harrington said of the Bushes’ attitude. “There are so many things they do that nobody ever knows.”
Politics do not appear to play a role in this relationship between the Bushes and Kennebunkport. In ways that play out quietly across the country — or at least in the ways they used to — a shared commitment to a better community makes good neighbors, regardless of party.
Barbara Bush has read to children at the library and visited sick children in town. Nearly everyone seems to have a story about the family, whose presence has made the town a global brand that can sometimes clog its narrow streets with throngs of tourists.
Bush said in his e-mail that Kennebunkport has changed over the years, but that its essential core remains the same.
“It’s a heck of a lot more crowded these days, that’s for sure. I guess the secret is out. And the restaurants are better,” Bush said.
“But what still inspires me about Kennebunkport are the things that haven’t changed: the beauty of the sea and the coastline, the decency of the people, the connection with family past, present, and future.”
Bradbury said he once asked Bush about that seamless bond.
“I sit in my chair here,” Bush answered, “and I look over to the window and I see my grandfather. It’s 7 p.m., and he’s still in his suit coat and tie. I look over to the rock, and I see my brother and myself playing. That rock was our submarine.”
The images of a long lifetime remain vivid for the nation’s oldest surviving president, but he will not rank them. They are a continuum, it seems, not a hierarchy.
“At age 93 now, I have too many memories to separate just one or two out,” Bush wrote in the e-mail.
“But let me say this. It’s where my parents were married. It’s where some of my grandchildren have married, too.
“So the town, and its people, are a part of my heartbeat. It’s always been that way, and thus may it ever be.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.