Port Arthur? Yes, George Bush slept here

Published 3:23 pm Saturday, December 1, 2018

By Ken Stickney


As a largely self-taught surveyor, commander in chief of the Continental Army and chief executive of the fledgling United States, George Washington, ever traveling, spent the night in so many far-flung quarters that a mock real estate slogan — “George Washington Slept Here” — sprang up partly in jest. There was even a play and later a Jack Benny movie by the same name.

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Well, the first president never slept in Port Arthur — it was first French and then Spanish territory during Washington’s lifetime — but the 41st president spent the night in Port Arthur. Jeff Hayes knows that story.

“Oh yeah, he spent the night at the Driftwood Inn,” Hayes, a real estate developer, recalled Saturday, hours after the former president died at age 94.

He said his brother Joe was running the Town Club, next to the Driftwood Inn at 3700 Memorial Blvd. in Port Arthur when George H.W. Bush, the Republican Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas, stopped in for a night’s rest.

Bush, traveling alone, had landed at the Jefferson County airport around 9:30 p.m. — he was the lone passenger on a commercial flight — and made his way to the Driftwood in Port Arthur. It was a Monday night, Jeff Hayes said, and help was scarce around the hotel and club.

Checking in, Bush told the night clerk he was hungry and could he order a ribeye? The clerk called Joe Hayes, Jeff’s brother, who operated the Town Club next door. He’d already sent the cooks and wait staff home, so Joe Hayes put the steak on the Town Club grill himself, grabbed a baked potato and tossed a salad.

Bush was exhausted, Joe Hayes recollected, and so he sat down with the future president — they were the only two people in the club — and talked while Bush dined for about an hour.

They enjoyed a few drinks, discussed politics — the Texas GOP was so small that the Jefferson County party could meet in a phone booth, Bush told him — and Joe Hayes went home with a favorable impression of the GOP candidate.

“He was a really nice guy,” Jeff recalled his brother saying, “great guy.”

After dinner, Bush, who was traveling alone, caught some sleep in the 134-room hotel next door.

Bush, then a congressman from Houston, eventually lost the Senate election but went on to secure a string of high-profile national jobs in the 1970s: United Nations ambassador, chairman of the Republican National Party, envoy to China and CIA director. He served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan and, elected in 1988, a single term as president.

Jeff Hayes said it seems remarkable now that Bush traveled alone then. He got his own cab — “There was no one there to pick him up,” Hayes said — made his own hotel arrangements, secured his own meal.

“Do you know how many people ‘Beto’ O’Rourke had working for him? About 850,” Hayes said of the 2018 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Hayes said Bush had other, private business dealings in Port Arthur with O.W. Burton, the shipbuilder, from whom Bush’s company, Zapata, purchased a variety of vessels. Burton later invested in Zapata, and became Bush’s friend. Oftentimes, Hayes said, Bush traveled on Burton’s DC-8 plane.