Presidents in Paradise
How Margaritaville finally produced a pool of 2016 presidential hopefuls
Illinois is the land of Abe Lincoln, Georgia gave us Jimmy Carter, Kansas reared Dwight Eisenhower, and Virginia has produced so many presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe—that you might suspect there’s something in the water.
Alas, poor Florida. We’ve never been fertile ground for Rose Garden contenders. Quarterbacks, sure; property developers, hell, yeah; eccentrics and swindlers and smugglers and murderers and writers of hilariously strange crime novels, you bet. But not presidents. Tennessee’s had three. Texas, two. Not Florida. Oh, presidents often pass through: Andrew Jackson was territorial governor in 1821, though he hated Florida so much he hightailed it to Washington as soon as he could. Teddy Roosevelt embarked from Tampa with his Rough Riders on their way to fight in the dubious Spanish-American War. John F. Kennedy avoided Massachusetts winters by spending time at his family’s Palm Beach estate, La Guerida, while Harry Truman preferred the less grandiose surroundings of Key West. And Richard Nixon bought a house on Key Biscayne to be near his fishing pal, Bebe Rebozo. Nixon was supposedly swimming in Rebozo’s pool when he heard about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
But with the onset of election season last year, things changed. Florida positively heaved with White House hopefuls. No fewer than four of the 17 Republicans who began to campaign in 2015 actually live in the state. Ben Carson relocated from Maryland to West Palm in 2013; a few years before that, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee built himself a $3 million beach shack on the Redneck Riviera; Jeb Bush hangs his hat in a posh townhouse near Coral Gables’ Venetian Pool; and Sen. Marco Rubio made sure to tell the nation, when he gave his famous water-bottle rebuttal to Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech, that he still lives in “the same working-class West Miami neighborhood” he grew up in.
So it seemed reasonable to assume that at least one Floridian would go all the way and make it to the nation’s highest office. I mean, look at this bumper crop. Two-term governor John Ellis Bush, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, whose grandfather served in Congress and whose father and elder brother were both presidents of the United States—hey, he’s a Bush. He raised more money than God. He had an education think tank and everything. Ben Carson was beloved by the evangelical right, even though he’s a Seventh Day Adventist. There’s a picture of him with Jesus hanging in his house. Plus, he’s African-American. Mike Huckabee is a former Baptist preacher and weight-loss guru. But he’s no prig: Ted Nugent is one of his best buds. And Marco Rubio? He’s young, telegenic and a first-term senator. Just like Barack Obama, except he’s conservative!
These were serious people; the kind of people Florida might point to with some pride. Or at least without wide-eyed, open-mouthed, disbelieving horror. Yet Huckabee dissipated like an early morning beach fog, and Carson sleepwalked his way out of the race. Bush started his campaign as “Jeb!” Now, it’s more like “Jeb?” As for bright, bilingual Rubio, the last Floridian still standing at the time of the Florida primary, well, he lost his home state by 20 points. Like the rest of the Floridian presidential hopefuls, he became roadkill on the highway of Donald Trump’s ire-fueled populism.
At this point, I suppose we must admit that Trump is a part-time Floridian. He frequently swoops down to his gilded mansion on Ocean Boulevard, where he amuses himself giving parties, hosting golf tournaments and suing Palm Beach County. In 1985, he bought Mar-a-Lago, the fantasy palazzo built for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the 1920s. She’d bequeathed the 100-plus-room house to the federal government, hoping they’d use it as a retreat for presidents or visiting foreign swells. The trouble was, it cost about $1 million a year to keep up. The feds were happy to sell the place to Trump for around $10 million. Then he threatened to chop up the grand Historic Register house to make a row of mini-mansions. When the Palm Beach Town Council refused to allow it, he sued. Finally, Trump turned the place into a private club, and enraged his genteel neighbors even more by erecting a gigantic flagpole with what Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino called “a car dealership–sized American flag of 15 feet by 25 feet flying from it.”
Trump’s demeanor on the campaign trail is nothing new: He honed his act in Florida. He is the multi-millionaire version of Florida Man: loud, proud, cunning and splendidly vulgar.
And maybe that’s Florida’s problem: The place is profoundly unpresidential. We lack gravitas. We’re famous for talking mice and tans, not statesmen. Despite Florida being the third most populous state—larger now than New York—maybe we’re just not presidential material. Our political history does not inspire confidence. In 2015, studies produced by both Harvard and Indiana universities named Florida among the top 10 most corrupt states in the nation. That’s actually progress: In 2013, we were No. 1. It’s no shocker that we’ve been at this a long time.
In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden seemed on track to outpoll Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the national vote count, with Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana too close to call. But Southern Democrats were willing to sacrifice Tilden if they could just get those pesky Reconstruction Republicans—and Union troops—out of their states. Florida electors cut the shadiest of deals, and Hayes prevailed in the Electoral College. The next year, the North pulled out of the South and the old plantation masters returned to power, putting a Jim Crow agenda in place.
That was Florida’s first, but not last, questionable presidential election, contributing to our cocked-up political karma. During the 2000 presidential recount imbroglio, chads dangled, butterfly ballots fluttered, lawyers huddled, Al Gore huffed and George W. Bush puffed. Then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris flounced around like Scarlett O’Hara at a barbecue, insisting that Florida had no voting problems and it was all just a bunch of silly nonsense ginned up with the left-wing press and, er, everybody else. Cuba offered to send “Democracy Advisors.” A British cartoonist drew a flaccid, flamingo-pink outline of Florida and captioned it “Electile Dysfunction.” Not quite 16 years ago, the whole world watched. And the whole world freaked out. I mean, Florida: It’s Margaritaville, alligators, old people, citrus stands and theme parks. It’s where people go to pretend life really is a beach. Surely a constitutional crisis should happen someplace less populated with cartoon characters.
For five weird weeks, Florida was the center of the electoral universe. Reporters from The New York Times and The Times of London drank cocktails decorated with pink plastic monkeys at Waterworks, Tallahassee’s famous Tiki bar. Talking heads from CNN and Fox walked around downtown trying to buy umbrellas (who knew it rained in Florida?). If you leave out the disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American voters, it was kind of fun—fun for those of us who lived here. No doubt everyone else got a bit nervous. But in Florida’s capital city, the recount was the most excitement we’d had since the Secession Convention of 1861.
Could such a kerfuffle happen again? Does Miami flood? Is the governor bald? Florida is a purple state. The election could be lip-bitingly close. The evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 means that if there are dirty tricks, long lines in precincts with a lot of minority voters, corrupt voter rolls and other dodgy polling practices, citizens can complain about it only after the election.
And God knows the election could get weird in Florida in other, less sinister ways. There could be a hurricane. In any case, if Donald Trump makes it out of the Republican National Convention in July and onto the ballot, Florida might have to admit he’s kind of, sort of, one of us. It will be huge. I mean, yoooge.