Jeb Repackaged

Jeb Bush and I first met in 1994 during his run for governor. For six days I crisscrossed the state with him in a motor home, listening to more stump speeches than I care to remember. How often during that week did he invoke the hokey phrase And when I look into the future through my children's eyes ...? A hundred times? More?

Though the repetition grated on reporters following the candidate that summer, Bush never seemed to tire of it. Virtually all his speeches were laden with ideas he fervently believed in. In fact, it was the excitement of those ideas that fueled him during the long hours on the campaign trail.

Jeb Bush was a zealot with a preacher's passion for the words he spoke. His campaign appearances became revival meetings, and like any good sermonizer, he laced them with heavy doses of hellfire and damnation. "The first priority of government is public safety," he would intone. "When you do something wrong, bad things should happen to you." Prisoners shouldn't be allowed to do "soft time," he'd exclaim. "We'd better make sure it isn't something more comfortable than the folks who live outside the prison, who are working hard and playing by the rules. It should be hard time." That viewpoint extended to juvenile offenders as well: "We should have punishment being the overriding philosophy in how we deal with children."

He was full of tough talk. He promised to kill more people on death row if he were governor. He called for the abolition of the state Department of Education, and he supported a voucher system that would allow parents to send their children to private schools at state expense.

The Jeb Bush of 1994 never minced words. He opposed abortion, considered homosexuality a sin, and decried the laziness encouraged by the welfare state. At each campaign stop he would recount the story of two women. One of them, a single mother, earned about $12,500 per year and received no government assistance. "She doesn't want it," Bush would say, "and she's not entitled to it." The other woman didn't work, he would hiss. She had two children and was pregnant with a third. "She gets Medicaid for free; she gets food stamps," he explained. He would rattle off other examples of government largess. She cheated welfare by working on the side, earning $150 per month under the table, and her live-in boyfriend tossed another $25 per week into the household kitty. All told, through various welfare programs and the odd jobs she never reported, she pocketed nearly $16,000 per year, he would scold, shaking his head in disgust. And as he went from country club to country club telling this story to his all-white audiences, they would shake their heads along with him, conjuring up their own image of what the lazy welfare mother looked like, and the color of her skin.

Throughout that summer and into the fall, Bush's words resonated with many voters who felt fearful and angry. He trounced his rivals in the Republican primary and led in the polls up till election day, when he lost to Gov. Lawton Chiles in the closest gubernatorial election in the state's history. Out of more than 4,200,000 votes cast, Bush was beaten by fewer than 64,000.

A few short days from now Jeb Bush will be elected governor of Florida over his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. If recent newspaper articles are to be believed, the man on his way to Tallahassee is a vastly different person from the one who lost four years ago. Today's candidate is often described as a kinder, gentler Jeb Bush, a man who has undergone a transformation that Bush himself calls "my life journey."

His odyssey may well have taken him down new paths (and he does seem better for it), but there is no denying the political complexion of the change. In the past four years, Bush has gone from a right-wing idealist whose principal goal was spreading conservative ideals to a political pragmatist focused on winning.

State Rep. Tom Feeney, who was Bush's running mate in 1994, notes the difference in the campaigns. "You'll remember on the bus tour how we would refer to some of the young guys -- and this was at Jeb's instigation -- as gladiators," Feeney recalls, describing certain eager volunteers. "I was recruited to the campaign by [Jeb's] saying that this was a mission to sell ideas, and I think we realized ten million dollars later -- a lot of fun and a lot of excitement later -- that in order to really make a difference in the lives of Floridians, you have to do more than have a lot of fun and sell ideas. You have to persuade people to give you a chance and get elected."

Gone is the emphasis on ideas. That's been replaced by a far more personalized campaign aimed at packaging Bush as a likable and trustworthy man whose political positions you may not always agree with but whose integrity and intentions are above reproach. As Bush himself puts it: "It is more about me and less about ideas."

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