The possibility of Florida producing its first U.S. president in the current political season is suspended along with the campaigns of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Florida is one of a handful of “swing states” that helps to determine the outcome of our presidential elections. In recent decades, Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes have gone to both Democratic and Republican candidates, making the difference between victory and defeat for both political parties in national races for president.
As important as Florida has become to our presidential election process, there has never been a president, or even a vice-president, from Florida.
“Florida is the largest state in the Union to have never had a president,” says James C. Clark, author of the book Presidents in Florida: How the Presidents Have Shaped Florida and How Florida Has Influenced the Presidents. “Not only have we not ever had a president or a vice-president, we’ve never even had a nominee.”
Florida was a Spanish colony from 1565 to 1763. During the American Revolution, Florida was under British control and remained loyal to the king, while colonies to the north sought independence. By the time George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States in 1789, Florida was again under Spanish control.
In 1821, future president Andrew Jackson oversaw Florida’s transition from a Spanish colony to a United States Territory.
“Andrew Jackson comes mainly to fight Indians, and then becomes the Territorial Governor briefly, after Florida was acquired by the United States,” says Clark. “Future president Zachary Taylor comes to fight Indians in the Seminole Wars. Then Teddy Roosevelt comes on his way to Cuba [in 1898, to fight in the Spanish-American War]. So, in a way, three people have their presidential careers launched in Florida, even though none of them are from Florida.”
Chester A. Arthur was the first sitting president to come to Florida. In the 1880s, he enjoyed fishing at Reedy Creek. Eighty years later, Walt Disney would buy that property to create his Florida theme parks.
In the twentieth century, all U.S. presidents come to Florida, and some make the state their second home while in office.
Harry S. Truman spent so much time in his Key West home that it became known as “The Little White House.” John F. Kennedy wrote his book Profiles in Courage and his presidential inaugural address from his family home in Palm Beach. The Bush family, which includes two U.S. presidents, has vacationed regularly in Florida since George H.W. Bush was a child.
Senator George Smathers was a prominent figure in Florida and national politics. Early in the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, rumors circulated that he might appoint Smathers as attorney general. Smathers was waiting on a call from Nixon, expecting a job offer.
When the call from Nixon came, it was not what Smathers had hoped.
“When Nixon called, he asked if he would sell him his home in Key Biscayne,” says Clark. “Smathers said ‘yes’ and it became the Key Biscayne White House. Richard Nixon was there the weekend that the Watergate burglary took place.”
The burglary of the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. led to the resignation of Nixon as president. It was during a press conference from the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World that Nixon gave his infamous “I am not a crook” speech on November 18, 1973, at the height of the Watergate scandal.
As terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was reading to elementary school students in Sarasota, Florida.
Before becoming president in 1921, Warren G. Harding was a frequent visitor to Brevard County. Less than a month before being sworn in, Harding’s yacht Victoria was stuck for two days as he attempted to sail past Titusville on the way to Merritt Island.
“At one point, Harding got bored on the boat,” says Clark. “He rode ashore, took a taxi cab for a ride around, just to see what was happening, came back to the dock in Titusville, bought some mullet, and took it back to the ship for dinner. Can you imagine that happening today?”