Jeb 2016: The Bush battle within
By: Maggie Haberman
May 13, 2014 05:03 AM EDT
Jeb Bush’s decision whether to run for president in 2016 is being driven by competing impulses within his own family. On one side is his eldest son, George P., who’s unabashedly and publicly supportive of his father’s potential candidacy. On the other are Jeb Bush’s mother and wife, who are clearly reluctant. In between is his older brother, George W., who is passively supportive but seems to friends to be more indifferent than enthusiastic.
These viewpoints became apparent in interviews with more than a dozen of Bush’s friends and associates. The opinions of his family members are critical, as Bush has made no secret that his decision will come down to family considerations.
But as with any momentous decision involving family dynamics, especially dynastic family dynamics, it’s complicated. The intentions of Jeb himself, who is 61, are hardest to read. He says he will decide by the end of this year.
As one of Jeb Bush’s friends put it, he speaks with “2,000 people on a variety of subjects, but when it comes to key decisions’’ — like his political future — the voices that count are people named Bush.
Who knows how the conversation will go the next time the family gathers at their Kennebunkport oceanside estate, a family retreat since the late 19th century. But some patterns are unmistakable:
The ambivalent older brother (and former president)
George W. Bush has said he hopes his brother will run for president. But he hardly sounds like a one-man drafting committee. Several operatives and donors said in interviews that they sense that the former president has some ambivalence about his brother running. His spokesman, Freddy Ford, dismissed such talk as “absolute drivel” and said of George W., “He’s an enthusiastic supporter of Gov. Bush.”
Still, the relationship between George W. and Jeb has never been deeply close, and people who have spoken to both say that the two insist that they haven’t discussed what a Jeb run might look like. The pair are quite different — Jeb the more thoughtful and, according to consultants who’ve dealt with both, more studious and emotionally tortured, while George is more decisive, a better delegator and more of an on-the-stump charmer.
The contrast between the two was obvious when Jeb’s official portrait was unveiled in Tallahassee in 2006. It featured the then-Florida governor standing next to a bookcase topped by a framed photo of his children positioned next to his ever-present Blackberry. It was an effort by Bush to point to an aspect of his political personality that he is proud of (and that is so different from his brother’s): studiously responsive to emails, always engaged and reluctant to hand off details to aides.
With more than six years separating them, the brothers never formed a reliance on each other as confidants. Jeb Bush didn’t spend much time at his brother’s White House, and the Florida recount over the 2000 campaign became a major focal point for Democrats against the president’s brother.
George W. has remarked that his brother knows how difficult a campaign would be — and, some of his allies note, it would mean yet another rehashing of a White House record that was struggling to regain some of its sheen. As for the relitigation of his presidency, Ford again insisted that is false: “He’s proud of his record.” He pointed to Bush’s recent CNN interview in which he said, “I hope Jeb runs. I think he would be a great president. I have no clue what’s on his mind. And we’ll talk when he’s ready.”
So while the former president may not be hankering for his brother to have designs on the White House, and Jeb was never a huge booster of his brother when he was in the White House, they both seem to be respecting their brotherly responsibilities. George W., who is 67, is on the record supporting his brother’s candidacy — one associate said the former president doesn’t want to get ahead of his brother by weighing in on what he thinks he should do. And Jeb has grown increasingly vocal in public, defending his brother’s legacy and criticizing President Barack Obama for using him as a scapegoat.
It’s unlikely George W.’s top advisers would assume roles in a future Jeb campaign or White House. Karl Rove, who has been described as the former president’s “brain,” openly criticized Jeb’s comments about illegal immigration as an “act of love” — all but ruling out the potential for close involvement should Jeb run.
The proud, supportive father
“I know his father would be thrilled to see him run,” longtime George H.W. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath told POLITICO.
It is widely known that Jeb’s father, who is 89, saw Jeb as his best hope for vindication after he lost his reelection. Several people close to the Bushes said the elder Bush is still haunted by Election Day 1994, when Jeb took a backseat to his brother, George W., who won his race for Texas governor in 1994 while Jeb was defeated in the final days of his own campaign in Florida by incumbent Lawton Chiles. That set of circumstances pushed George W. to the forefront, using a successful reelection in 1998 as a springboard to the presidency just as Jeb was having to establish himself.
Jeb, who’d long had plans for a political career, had already launched his gubernatorial candidacy when his brother suddenly dove into the Texas race. The dual campaigns transformed the two into a “People magazine story,” Jeb complained publicly, although he added he had “no control” over his older brother, who on at least one occasion tailored his own stump lines to mirror Jeb’s.
The night Jeb lost and George W. won, the 41st president told reporters, “The joy is in Texas, but our hearts are in Florida.” The loss, Jeb told a reporter later, “really hurt my parents and it kind of created an uncomfortable situation when I’ve seen George W.”
Jeb and his parents are very close; in Connecticut last month, he talked about taking “the good with the bad” with his mother, but there’s no one he reveres more in public than his dad.
Some veterans of Jeb’s father’s and brother’s campaigns want the family back in the White House.
One longtime Jeb Bush friend, describing his current state of mind, said “enormous pressure” is being brought to bear on him by the “network” — a loose alliance of donors from his father’s and brother’s presidential campaigns, lured by the luster of recapturing past magic.
Many of them have made public appeals for him as the best candidate to run — Mel Sembler and Al Hoffman, two H.W. Bush-era donors who were involved with Jeb’s campaigns in Florida, have been among the most vocal.
“He and I are good friends, we have great respect and affection for each other and he’s always been very solicitous of me over the years and we’ve maintained a close friendship,” Hoffman told POLITICO of Bush, for whose campaigns he served as campaign finance chairman.
“I do hope he does run. I’m all in favor of his running for president,” he said, but added, “He’s always kept his own counsel, as he always does with everyone.”
The reluctant spouse
Several people who saw Jeb Bush in the last year said they came away convinced he would never run for president, because Columba, his wife of 40 years, was against the idea. But, his supporters note, rumors swirled in Florida for months that she was opposed to her husband seeking reelection as Florida governor in 2002, and yet she came out forcefully in favor of another campaign. The point: It’s far more complicated than the public portrayals. She may not love the thought of a presidential race, but if she were flatly opposed, he also wouldn’t be considering it as seriously as he is.
Columba, who was born in Mexico, spent decades trying to assimilate into her famous new family but never had an interest in being a political wife herself (to say she is not excited about the prospect of a presidential race is “an understatement,” said one Bush confidante).
Her sister told an interviewer 25 years ago that her husband’s political lineage had disrupted “the tranquil life she expected.” That life never materialized, as Columba — or “Colu,” as Jeb and family members call her — was swept up in a political dynasty in which her marriage gave her father-in-law’s national aspiration broader reach to Hispanics. She adjusted, saying midway through Jeb’s first term that she had become accustomed to political life. But it was never her preference.
Diminutive, firm in her views and more interested in the arts and education than politics — she once dreamed of becoming an artist — she nonetheless immersed herself in her father-in-law’s presidential race in 1988 and changed citizenship so she could vote for him.
A rough moment was when George H.W. Bush referred to “Jebby’s kids … the little brown ones,” not because she herself was upset — she told interviewers she thought it was meant affectionately and said her in-laws were very loving to her family — but because her children might be harmed by the media “hype” around them.
“I was trembling” the next day, she recalled at the time.
Columba and her sister married two young men who were friends and exchange students. Columba went on to be known as the “invisible first lady” during her husband’s first term as Florida governor, rarely giving interviews after embarrassing headlines in June 1999, when U.S. Customs officials fined her for not declaring $19,000 in clothes she’d bought on a trip to Paris. She said at the time she lied because she didn’t want her husband getting upset.
“I did not ask to join a famous family,” she said back then. “I simply wanted to marry the man I loved.”
She all but shut down interviews after that, even though she had a number of initiatives that comprised her portfolio, like founding a scholarship program for kids interested in arts, ending youth alcohol abuse and meeting with addicts in treatment centers. She and her husband had mentioned publicly while campaigning that one of their kids had struggled with drugs, although it wasn’t until daughter Noelle’s arrest for a fake prescription in 2002 that people realized who they meant.
These days, Columba Bush, who is 60, enjoys their post-political life in Miami and has kept up with charity work on issues like combating domestic violence and drug abuse.
The even more reluctant mother
The other leading woman in Jeb Bush’s life has been far more open publicly with her concerns about a campaign. And while Jeb allies insisted in interviews that the “Barbara stuff” isn’t a big factor for him, he has seemed stung by his mother’s comments made over the past year — ones she repeated at a recent George W. Bush Presidential Library event, where she declared there had been “enough Bushes” for the country.
Jeb’s brother, Neil Bush, bluntly told CNN recently that when his mother made the comment “we were all watching Jeb standing over in the corner nervously, just, like, what’s your response to that?”
Last year, Jeb himself was more direct: “She promised me she wouldn’t keep saying this.”
Jim McGrath, the longtime spokesman for George H.W. Bush, seeking to tamp down the controversy, said people are misreading her remarks about “enough Bushes’’ as a slight that doesn’t actually exist.
“Her point was the Bushes don’t feel any entitlement to run for the presidency,’’ he said.
She is speaking, people close to the family insist, as a mother who knows how difficult a campaign would be. Barbara Bush is 88.
The enthusiastic son
Jeb’s eldest son, 38-year-old George P. Bush, is the most outspoken family advocate for his father to run. Whenever people approach “P,” as he’s called, and say they hope his father runs for president — which happens all the time — he responds that they should tell him that directly.
In an interview last week with Neil Cavuto of Fox News, George P. said he has no “inside baseball” on whether his father would run. “He is leaving his options open,” Bush, who is running for Texas land commissioner, said about his father’s thoughts about a 2016 campaign. “He is assessing it seriously.”
But privately, George P. has been less equivocal.
“Dad’s got a decision to make,” George P. said at a fundraiser last week for his own campaign in New York City, co-hosted by his cousin, Jeanna Bush Hager. “I hope he runs.”
And in closed-door conversations with donors, he’s been more direct, saying to some: “It’s up to mom,” referring to Columba.