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."

No more of the angry speeches that dominated the 1994 campaign. His rhetoric is softer, fuzzier, less specific, as exemplified by this year's campaign theme: "We can do better." He talks generally about the things we have in common. He espouses the belief that we must nurture children rather than punish them. He promises to build consensus. And today, he asserts, his number-one priority is education.

"He learned a good deal in 1994," observes Sally Bradshaw, Bush's campaign manager then and now. "And just like you are four years older and I'm four years older, he's four years older and wiser." (Bush is now 45.) "He would also tell you he learned a valuable lesson from Governor Chiles four years ago, and that is you don't have to have an opinion on every subject under the sun. I think Jeb felt the need to be very specific on issues and to have an opinion on every subject. Now he approaches subjects very thoughtfully. He's taken the time to listen to the constituencies that are affected by the decisions the governor makes on an issue. Governor Chiles never talked about an issue in 1994 and yet won the election."

Bush agrees: "In '94 if someone would ask me a question, I'd think about it quickly and give a pretty provocative answer. Half the people would be incredibly pleased with it. The other half would say, 'Well now, something is wrong with this boy.' And Governor Chiles would be asked the same question and he would say, 'The he-coon came out before the light of day.' And that was it. I think in '94 I felt I had to prove I had answers. Now I've learned I don't have to have all the answers, and I don't."

In addition, three major differences mark today's political landscape. Most significantly, Bush is not facing a popular incumbent. Second, this year he had no opposition for the Republican nomination, a costly battle in 1994. And third, he can now draw on the remarkable success of his brother George W. Bush, governor of Texas.

In 1994 Jeb Bush faced a half-dozen Republican challengers, including Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Secretary of State Jim Smith. Both Gallagher and Smith had run successful statewide campaigns, enjoyed strong name recognition, and had represented the more moderate wing of the state's Republican Party. To beat them Bush needed to appeal to conservative voters, one of the reasons he chose as his running mate Tom Feeney, a darling of the right who opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. As Feeney recalls, "He had to be concerned with establishing himself as a credible candidate and a loyal conservative Republican."

Though Bush won the nomination, he had spent so much time demonstrating his conservative credentials that the scant six weeks between the primary and the general election left him little opportunity to moderate his positions in the campaign against Chiles. The governor took advantage by keeping Bush pinned down as an extremist out of touch with mainstream Florida.

Bush's newfound pragmatism was evident from the moment he announced his candidacy. He selected as his running mate Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, a moderate, pro-choice Republican. When questions regarding ethical lapses forced Mortham to pull out a few months later, Bush turned to Secretary of Education Frank Brogan, praising his commitment to children and his work in a bureaucracy that just four years earlier Bush had vowed to abolish.

The absence of Republican opposition this year has allowed Bush to spend time courting not only moderate Republicans but Democrats as well. As former running mate Tom Feeney recalls, "About a year and a half ago Jeb told me, 'Tom, I'm going to spend less time talking to people who have always been our friends. They are going to have to trust us. In this campaign I'm going behind the traditional enemy lines and make friends.'"

Credit that strategy to brother George, who spent most of his first term as governor reaching out to Texas Democrats and who is now coasting to re-election and is already being touted as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

"Here is a guy who not only wins the campaign against a popular incumbent," marvels Feeney, referring to George's win over Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, "but here's a guy who appeals to the Hispanic community, who appeals to Democrats, who is up in the polls. If you didn't look at that as a case study for running in Florida, you'd be nuts."

One area in which Jeb Bush's life journey remains incomplete is his inability to fully understand how his conduct in 1994 engendered such contempt from blacks that Chiles received more than 95 percent of the black vote. Recently, during a candidate forum in Little Haiti, Bush acknowledged that he "screwed up" four years ago when, replying to the question "What would Governor Bush do for blacks?" he answered, "Probably nothing."

From Bush's point of view, he committed a simple rhetorical mistake: He shouldn't have been glib. But the implication of the answer remains: No group is entitled to special treatment. If he had been asked, What are you going to do for white men, or what are you going to do for women, or what are you going to do for people more than six feet tall, his answer would have been the same: "Probably nothing." Bush's allegiance to that idea, however, will have an impact on issues ranging from affirmative action to minority set-aside programs. To this day, though, he maintains that the anger toward him in the black community was largely the result of his views having been maliciously distorted by the Democrats.

"After the '94 campaign, I tried to appraise what happened," Bush muses. "It was hurtful. I felt bad that people felt the way they did about me. It broke my heart to see those things, because that is not who I am. At first I thought this wasn't fair, and then I reflected on it and realized I screwed up. If I had let people know who I was, it would have been different. If I had let people know who I was, I would have won."

Today his strategy is to downplay those ideas many blacks may find unpalatable and to stress instead his confidence they can trust him because he is a good person.

"I think he understands it's better to focus on what people have in common rather than what separates them," says Cory Tilley, Bush's press secretary during both campaigns. "I don't think it is a new Jeb. I don't think he is being disingenuous. I just think he has done a better job of defining himself."

Democrats, of course, assisted his efforts to appeal to black voters in January by unceremoniously ousting Opa-locka's Rep. Willie Logan as the party's House speaker-designate. But long before the Logan debacle, Bush had begun courting black voters. "I could have hung out with Republicans who still seemed to appreciate me," he remarks, "and not done a lot of heavy lifting." Instead, he says, he sought to reach beyond what he describes as his "comfort zone."

"It takes more than giving a speech in a black church or visiting a condominium to break down long-term barriers," says Feeney. "It takes repeated, concentrated efforts to show people who you are, to get them comfortable with you as a person, to confess that you don't agree with everything they do. That's not something you can accomplish with a visit or two. You can't do that in a six-week period."

After Bush lost in 1994, he set up a nonprofit think tank called the Foundation for Florida's Future. Democrats have denigrated the foundation as a tool used by Bush to keep his campaign network alive. Indeed several people from Bush's 1994 campaign, including Sally Bradshaw, went to work for the foundation. Feeney doesn't disagree that Bush probably realized he could use the foundation as a way to reach out to voters with whom he had little success in 1994.

"One of the first things the Foundation for Florida's Future did was take a poll in the African-American community and ask questions about crime and social policy and welfare reform, and it determined that there are a lot of areas where we agree, and what we lack is the ability or the willingness to sell our agenda in a credible way," Feeney says. "We are just not believed in the African-American community when we say, 'We have your best interests at heart when we do welfare reform.' It is a matter of trust."

In order to build credibility within the black community, the foundation, along with the Urban League of Greater Miami, opened a publicly financed, privately operated "charter school" three years ago in Liberty City.

Feeney likens Bush's journey to the teachings of Plato, in which the ancient Greek philosopher proposed how to make an effective argument. "There are logos, pathos, and ethos," Feeney explains. "Logos is the logic of your argument. As Republicans we always had that. Pathos is the sympathy and the emotion of your argument, and really the liberals have always been able to portray themselves as more sympathetic. But the final part of any great speech is the ethos, the ethics of the speaker and the integrity of the speaker. Well, that is what Jeb has been working on, the ethos and the pathos. Those are things that take a long time to do.

"I don't think Jeb Bush's belief system has changed fundamentally," Feeney says. "I do believe he is able to articulate his beliefs in a way that is less threatening and that emphasizes the opportunity and the positive sides of things as opposed to the negative or the harsh side."

Press secretary Tilley says Bush is earnest in his efforts to listen to differing views on issues. "I think he has learned some things from people he didn't spend much time with in the past, and I think that started with the Liberty City charter school," Tilley says. "For about a year that was his number-one thing in terms of time. I think it really opened his eyes to some of the problems inner cities have. Everybody knew the inner cities were decaying, but being there firsthand working on the charter school really gave him the ability to see things a little differently."

"It did raise my consciousness," Bush acknowledges. "We are moving toward two Floridas. I've believed that for a while but now I've seen it, and it is a greater motivation for me in the political realm -- the fact that children grow up in neighborhoods that are so unsafe and in such conditions that it is just haunting. It is haunting to me, at least."

Through the charter school, Bush says, he met people "who have enhanced my life and made me a better person." And he adds that now he's more interested in talking about things people have in common, such as "faith, the moral order of things, and the lack of it in certain places."

Democrats have their doubts. "I think Jeb has honestly tried to reach out and understand better, but I'm not convinced he is a different Jeb Bush than he was in 1994," says Rick Dantzler, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. "I think he fuzzes the issues. He will not come down definitively on one side or the other of some of the bigger issues that are in play now. And that can only tell me there is some intent to deceive or to not be totally forthright about his positions.

"I'll give Jeb credit in this respect: Many times he says nothing in his answers, but he says nothing well."

Dantzler finds it amazing that Bush is portraying himself as a person who would have a moderating influence on the Republican legislature with issues such as abortion, school prayer, and gun control: "We saw some bills passed this last session that many people would believe were extreme, but because there was a Democrat in the governor's mansion, and because Governor Chiles is a person of courage and conviction, many of those things that passed did not become law."

Chiles himself wonders which Jeb Bush the public will see when the campaign is over, especially if he wins. Will it be the lifelong conservative or the sensitive populist? "That's what we don't know," the governor says. And that's why, Chiles concludes, Bush's campaign is so dangerous.

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