Mr. Bush was addressing lawmakers, his son Gov. Jeb Bush's top administrators, and Florida state workers gathered in the House chamber for the last of the governor's leadership forums.
He said he was proud of how his son handled losing the 1994 governor's race to popular incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles, and vaguely referred to dirty tricks in the campaign.
"He didn't whine about it. He didn't complain," the former president said before choking up. As he tried to continue, he let out a sob and put a handkerchief to his face. When he spoke again, his words were broken up by pauses as he tried to regain composure.
"A true measure of a man is how you handle victory and how you handle defeat, so in '94 Floridians chose to rehire the governor. They took note of his worthy opponent, who showed with not only words but with actions what decency he had," Bush said before again sobbing.
After his defeat, Jeb Bush formed a group called Foundation for Florida's Future which promoted education policy. He also helped open a charter school in a poor Miami neighborhood, helped the state Republican Party organize a convention and straw poll to have sway in the 1996 presidential election and lobbied for education and campaign finance reform bills. Bush won the first of his two terms in 1998.
"The moral of the story is to serve with honor and your governor has served with honor," the former president said.
"I'm the emotional one," Mr. Bush said later. "I don't enjoy breaking up, but when you talk about somebody you love, when you get older, you do it more."
He also talked about his recent friendship with former President Clinton. He recalled a political cartoon showing his son, the president, opposing gay marriage and then walking into a room and finding his father on a sofa with Clinton's arm around him, prompting him to shout, "Dad! What are you doing?"
Mr. Clinton, said the elder Bush, got a chuckle out of that one.
"(Clinton) cut it out of the paper and said, 'Don't you think we ought to cool it, George?"'
The former president also answered questions. When asked about the vision for his grandchildren, he said neither he nor his wife are pushing them toward politics or running for public office.
"But I hope that they will, I hope quite a few of them will," he said before pausing and joking about the current President Bush's daughters. "I'm not sure I'd count on the twins doing this - Jenna and Barbara - but they're full of life and they might."