The Patience of Jeb
While Others Talk of the Presidency, Bush Focuses on Florida and Family
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 23, 2003; Page F01
TALLAHASSEE – Jeb Bush is talking, as he often does, about family.
"Although it is an intensely private -- and at times painful -- matter, you should know that I am rededicating myself to being a better father and husband," the governor says. He is giving his second inaugural address under a crystalline sky on the steps of Florida's Old Capitol. The crowd of 3,000 includes several people wearing "Jeb Bush for President in 2008" buttons.
The subtext is lost on no one. His 25-year-old daughter, Noelle, is on the stage, on a one-day leave from her court-ordered drug treatment program in Orlando. She is accompanied by a drug counselor. "I realize that any sense of fulfillment I have from this event is meaningless unless they too can find fulfillment in their lives," Bush continues, his voice quivering.
He is the Bush with the angst gene, who seems to labor through even his pinnacle moments. His capacity for public tears is impressive even by the weepy standards of the Bush family. He cried four times at his inaugural events last month -- one fewer than he did during "Forrest Gump."
It is, or should be, such a sweet scene. America's Little Brother, decisively reelected, gets sworn in on the same Bible his brother and father used in Washington. George and Bar sit point-'n'-waving at the front of the stage. Four F-15s scream overhead, and a National Guard unit fires 19 cannon blasts. George P. Bush, Jeb's 26-year-old son and the program's master of ceremonies, talks like he's already in Congress. The 41st president introduces Jeb. The 43rd president couldn't make it, but he's a busy man.
But it's never so simple with family dynasties. This is mercilessly true for John Ellis "Jeb" Bush.
Bush, 50, is best known for the melodramas that bubble around him. He is a shy public man who seems destined to suffer in the open. He is the Bush who has acknowledged marital strife, who cries while discussing his daughter's drug problems on the "Today" show -- the same show that repeatedly broadcast her mug shot after her arrest on drug charges -- whose wife's ill-fated Paris shopping spree made her a Leno punchline and whose handsome oldest son is a People magazine idol. And this doesn't include the famous family Jeb Bush was born into -- or, for that matter, the infamous election he was thrust into.
In the Bush family shorthand, Jeb was the anointed one: the driven big-thinker who started kindergarten a year early and graduated from the University of Texas in 2 1/2 years. He has succeeded by any measure: the first Republican to win reelection as Florida's governor. Some fans call him "Bush 44," kidding, sort of. (George P. is "Bush 45.") He might be the most closely watched U.S. politician outside Washington.
He cherishes these subtexts like gum surgery. Friends say Jeb Bush wants nothing more than to be left alone.
"He probably has as complex a situation to deal with as anyone in public office I've ever seen," says John Thrasher, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former state House speaker. He is referring to Jeb's web of public expectations and private circumstances.
To Jeb Bush, the governance of Florida is a precious space of his own authority, blissfully apart from everything else. "Florida, Florida, Florida," he says, declaring his focus. This is how he steers conversations away from national matters, especially those that concern his brother. This is smart politics, assuring everyone that his priority is his current job. But there's also a sense that Bush is protecting a refuge, one that is always under siege.
A pre-inaugural barbecue in Miami is billed as a chance for Bush to mingle with his hometown admirers. But the governor spends most of his time in a VIP tent. When he comes out to work a quick rope line, his supporters, per custom, urge him to run for president. "Florida, Florida, Florida," he says in response to another question about whether he will.
Talking about his presidential plans, Bush says, "is like talking about whatever that group is from outer space." He is referring to the Raelians, the pro-cloning cult that has ties to Florida, naturally. "It's weird," Bush says of running for president. "I never think about it."
He shakes hands with a man in a yarmulke, one in a wheelchair and another in an Eminem shirt. Several people wear "Jeb!" and "I H Hooters" stickers, which are being slapped on zealously by volunteers (presumably unaffiliated).
Bush is 6 feet 4 and slightly heavyset with the beginnings of jowls. He lumbers from group to group, switching from English to Spanish. Bush hugs everyone he gets close to, or as best he can manage from behind a waist-high steel barrier. It's as close as he'll come to being a wade-into-the-crowd pol.
"You can understand the enormous comfort level he has with being governor," says Lanny Griffith, a Republican lobbyist and longtime friend. In Florida, Griffith says, "he doesn't have to have everything analyzed in terms of his brother or his dad."
Jeb Bush can be warm and approachable. But compared with the Georges, he keeps a discernible distance. He almost never grants face-to-face interviews and has particular disdain for the national media. They focus, inevitably, on his daughter, his wife, his brother, his father, 2000 or 2008.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
The governor greets supporters at a barbecue before his swearing-in last month.
(Wilfredo Lee -- AP)
_____More on Jeb Bush_____
Jeb Bush Wins Reelection Bid (The Washington Post, Nov 6, 2002)
Gov. Bush's Daughter Sent to Jail (The Washington Post, Oct 18, 2002)
In Florida, a Volatile Political Season (The Washington Post, Mar 31, 2002)
Many Democrats, One Goal in Fla. (The Washington Post, Jun 30, 2001)
A Weeping Jeb Bush Defends Black Staffers (The Washington Post, Feb 24, 2001)
Jeb Bush Sets Out To Try to Unify Fla. (The Washington Post, Dec 15, 2000)