In 1999, Columba Bush, the famously private wife of then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was detained and fined by federal customs officials for misrepresenting the amount of clothing and jewelry she had bought while on a solo five-day shopping spree in Paris.
The incident left the Florida first lady deeply mortified and her husband politically chagrined. Jeb Bush said the first lady had misled customs officials because she did not want him to know that she had spent about $19,000 on the trip.
“The embarrassment I felt made me ashamed to face my family and friends,” Columba Bush said in a July 1999 speech to the Central Florida Make-a-Wish Foundation, not long after the incident. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
The ordeal did not stop her from spending freely, however. Less than a year later, she took out a loan to buy $42,311.70 worth of jewelry on a single day, according to records filed with the state of Florida by Mayors Jewelers.
That purchase was part of a pattern by Columba Bush of borrowing to buy tens of thousands of dollars of jewelry at a time from the South Florida store over a 14-year period. Documentation available online, which does not include the details of two transactions made less than six weeks apart in 1995, shows that she spent a total of more than $90,000 at the store.
Jeb Bush’s political team insisted that her tastes and shopping habits should not be an issue. “Mrs. Bush bought jewelry from time to time from Mayors Jewelers over the years. Though not required to be reported, these purchases in 2000 were included as accounts payable on Governor Bush’s financial disclosure that year, and paid off the next,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said by e-mail.
Campbell also said that the governor was “aware she made purchases from time to time.”
That kind of spending, though well within his means, may present a challenge for Jeb Bush as he prepares for a presidential run with a message that the playing field between rich and poor is not fair or level.
In recent years, candidates in both parties have had to answer questions about high-dollar transactions by themselves and their family members, whether a $400 haircut for John Edwards, six-figure speaking fees for Hillary Rodham Clinton, or the number of homes and cars Mitt Romney owned.
While spouses are not on the ballot, they too find their lifestyles the focus of curiosity — and, frequently, partisan attack. Americans view a candidate’s family as an indicator of how closely connected he or she is to average people.
In the 2012 campaign, Romney’s wife, Ann, was mocked for her horse, and when she wore a $990 shirt, it was widely noted. First lady Michelle Obama drew fire for wearing a pair of sneakers that cost upward of $500 when she went to bag groceries at a food bank in 2009.
Jeb Bush’s wife shuns the spotlight that follows the prominent family into which she married 41 years ago. She rarely grants interviews, and published profiles describe her as a quiet homebody who paints and does needlepoint, is passionate about her charity work, and has lunches by herself at modest restaurants.
Her reluctance to return to public life was seen as a major factor in her husband’s decision on whether to run for the 2016 Republican nomination. Many were surprised in October when Jeb Bush told the Associated Press that his wife was “supportive” of the idea.
During Bush’s two terms as governor, from 1999 to 2007, the first lady maintained a low profile, living much of the time in their Miami-area home rather than in the state capital, Tallahassee.
She was a long-standing customer of Mayors, shopping at one of its locations, since closed, in the Miami suburb of Sunrise.
Mayors spokesman Francis Guindon declined to provide information about Columba Bush’s purchases, saying the store keeps its clients’ information confidential.
Uniform Commercial Code forms filed by the store with the Florida secretary of state’s office on May 3, 2000, indicate that Mayors arranged a loan under which Columba Bush bought four items. They were: a $25,600 pair of diamond stud earrings set in platinum; an 18-karat white-gold and diamond bracelet by the Italian designer Bulgari, priced at $10,500; an 18-karat white-gold and diamond necklace, costing $3,200; and another pair of diamond earrings, for $3,300. The records indicate that she received discounts and price adjustments totalling $2,780 and paid $2,491.70 in sales tax.
That was one of at least five such loans made by the store to Columba Bush between 1995 and 2009. The most recent was for an $11,700 Rolex watch and a $5,900 pair of earrings.
While the 2000 purchase listed the governor’s mansion as her home address, documents suggest that, on at least one earlier occasion, Columba Bush wanted the paperwork sent to a postal box.
In 1997, when she bought a Roman coin necklace for $15,000 and a $16,600 Rolex watch studded with diamonds, she listed as her mailing address one that is currently used by a UPS Store in Miami. At the time, the shipping facility operated under the name Mail Boxes Etc.
That purchase came at a moment when the Bushes were receiving intense public attention. In early 1997, Jeb Bush indicated that he planned to run for governor the following year. It was his second bid for the office, after a narrow loss in 1994.
There is no job description for a first lady, on either a state or a national level. The spouse, however, has always been regarded as a window into the officeholder.
And through history, their lifestyles have often come under special scrutiny. Mary Todd Lincoln was known as a compulsive shopper who wore $2,000 dresses and once told a friend: “I must dress in costly materials. The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants.” She confided that she hoped Abraham Lincoln would run for reelection so that he would continue to be too busy to take note of the bills.
Columba Bush’s mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, on the other hand, was seen as a down-to-Earth contrast with her glamorous, free-spending predecessor, Nancy Reagan. The elder Mrs. Bush, though from a privileged background, made sure it was known that her signature triple-strand pearls were fake.
More recently, former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s six-figure jewelry gifts to his wife from Tiffany & Co.caused a flap when they were disclosed during his 2012 presidential bid.
Having enormous wealth does not allay the criticism and can even intensify it, particularly for candidates who seem tone-deaf to how far removed they are from the struggles of ordinary Americans.
Already during the run-up to the 2016 election, former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the leading potential contender for the Democrats, has been criticized for her huge speaking fees. She also was ridiculed for her contention that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House.
Columba Bush, who is from Mexico, holds special interest as a potential first lady because she would be the first Latina in that role and only the second first lady born in a foreign country.
Yet she has not had much of a public presence, preferring her privacy and working for such causes as fighting substance abuse and promoting arts education.
“She would trade 20 society galas for one juicy Spanish soap opera savored in the comfort of her South Dade County home,” the Miami Herald wrote of Columba Bush in 1989, shortly after her father-in-law, George H.W. Bush, was inaugurated as president.
Nor has the couple been known for an ostentatious personal lifestyle, despite their wealth. “Jeb Bush may have made millions in real estate, but it doesn’t show in his own house. The Bushes live in Pinecrest, a neighborhood of modest, ’70s-style ranch homes,” the St. Petersburg Times wrote of them a few weeks before his 1998 election. (The Bushes now live in nearby Coral Gables, in a four-bedroom townhouse purchased for $1.3 million in 2012.)
After Columba Bush was forced to pay $4,100 in fines and duties for the purchases she had tried to slip past customs agents at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, the governor said her shopping habits were no one else’s business.
“It is a lot of money. But look, that’s between her and me,” he said. The episode happened at a particularly sensitive moment, because Jeb Bush’s brother George, the governor of Texas, was making the first of his two successful bids for the White House.
There is no doubt that Jeb and Columba Bush could cover their bills, including the big one she ran up during his governorship.
His financial disclosure form showed that he held $2.3 million in assets in 2000. His income was $202,616, of which $117,593 came from his gubernatorial salary and the remainder as dividends, capital gains and interest from a trust.
He listed unspecified “household bills and other accounts payable” of $73,000. That was higher than the $10,000 in debt reported the previous year and the $18,000 in 2001, supporting the Bush spokeswoman’s contention that the loan was fully disclosed.
That there is a paper trail of some of Columba Bush’s purchases reflects a practice that is not unusual in cases where a person obtains expensive goods without paying cash for them, said Charles W. Mooney Jr., a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor who specializes in commercial law.
The seller often files a “financing statement” under the Uniform Commercial Code to make sure he or she has the right to reclaim the goods if the debtor goes bankrupt or sells the items to another party without paying off the loan.
“Even prominent people go broke. They don’t want to extend unsecured credit,” Mooney said.
Guindon, the Mayors spokesman, added: “Many of our customers choose to take advantage of our various credit offerings. We offer competitive rates and terms which often outperform that of credit card companies, for example, interest-free plans. Customers are subject to credit approval, of course.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.