Road Show

Want to know more about Jeb Bush? The machinations of Florida's Republican party? Vomiting? Get on the bus.

Each day on the campaign trail, several times a day, Bush tells the story of two women. One of them, a single mother, has worked for HRS for five years, earns about $12,500 per year, and receives no government assistance. "She doesn't want it," Bush says, "and she's not entitled to it." The other woman doesn't work, he hisses, at least not officially. She has two children and is pregnant with a third. "She gets Medicaid for free," he says. "She gets food stamps." He rattles off other examples of government largess. She cheats on welfare, he says, by working on the side, earning $150 a month under the table, and her live-in boyfriend tosses another $25 per week into the household kitty. All told, through various welfare programs and the odd jobs she never reports, she pockets nearly $16,000 a year.

Bush recounts the tale of the two women, which he claims was told to him by an official in Polk County, as a way of illustrating that welfare is being abused by lazy people who would rather have babies and live off the government than earn an honest wage. That he can tell this story in a way that makes a household income of under $16,000 seem luxurious is both a tribute to his oratorical skills and an indication of bitter middle-class frustration with the welfare system. "Prosperity comes from hard work," he says, which often draws applause. "And the virtue of work has been lost on our society."

But isn't there something disingenuous -- elitist even -- about a man like Bush, who comes from a wealthy family and who has enjoyed every imaginable privilege throughout his life, railing against welfare and the poor? After all, how would he know what it's like out there? "Well, I'm not going to go into poverty to find out," he huffs. "I've spent a year campaigning full time. I've talked to a lot of people. I've listened and I've learned, which is a hell of a lot more than Lawton Chiles has done going from one photo op to another."

At 7:45 a.m. Bush and I are standing in the back of Jacobson's, a men's and women's clothing store in downtown Osprey for a meeting of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce. The candidate is impeccably attired in a dark blue suit. I'm wearing a Hawaiian shirt and faded blue jeans.

Bush has already glad-handed his way through the crowd of insurance salesmen, car dealers, and bankers, and has now settled at the rear of the store with a cup of coffee as he waits for the chamber president to introduce him. In the meantime, he chats amiably with Mr. Jacobson, the silver-haired proprietor who bears a striking resemblance to famed fashion hound Mr. Blackwell. About 150 people have gathered to hear Bush and, as Mr. Jacobson unexpectedly announces, to enjoy a brief fashion show. I turn to Bush, incredulous: "Fashion show?" He shrugs. I nod.

As the show begins, men and women alternate down a makeshift runway to polite applause. "Jeb," I ask, "how much would you give me if I jump up there and model what I've got on?"

"Twenty-five bucks," he answers without hesitation, grinning.
Quickly I head down a side aisle to a makeshift backstage area. "Sorry I'm late," I tell the woman coordinating things.

"Late?" she asks.
"Yup," I reply. "Mr. Jacobson says I need to get right on. New collection. Republican grunge. From the Limbaugh Line for Tubby Conservatives. We're all very excited about it."

"Republican what?" she asks, but before she can say anything else, I've walked past her and have climbed onto the runway. I strike a playful pose in front of a display for the Ralph Lauren collection, give a quarter turn to the right, a half turn to the left, and wink knowingly at a woman in the first row. Across the room, Mr. Jacobson is frozen in place, eyes wide, mouth open -- a mercantile debutante whose coming-out party has suddenly been spoiled by some Animal House miscreant.

Having never missed an episode of Cindy Crawford's House of Style on MTV or Fox's newest hit, Models Inc., I know what it takes to succeed. I must make the runway my own, and I do so by skipping across the platform to the Nautica display and delivering yet another sassy pose. At this point, I'm later told, Cory Tilley is overheard mumbling to himself, "Oh no. Oh no. Please no." As press shepherd it is his job to keep members of the media fed, watered, and moving in the right direction. But I have strayed. Worse, I seem to have gone mad, perhaps rabid. In an instant, Tilley has made up his mind: I must be put down for the sake of the herd. But before he can give the order to have my bags tossed off the motor home, somebody points out to him that Bush is laughing. And as I finish my strut down the center aisle, the room's initial shock quickly gives way to laughter and even applause. "I owe him 25 bucks!" Bush tells anyone who will listen. And a short time later, when we board the motor home, he breaks out his personal checkbook and ponies up the money.

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