It's two o'clock in the morning and I'm kneeling on the tile floor in my bathroom at the Fort Myers Comfort Suites Inn, puking into a toilet that earlier in the day, according to the paper strip I'm now clinging to, had been sanitized for my protection. Food poisoning, most likely -- a bad decision made hours earlier after debating between Arby's and McDonald's -- and it has left me a wretching invalid. It couldn't have happened at a more inconvenient time, on the very morning I am to meet the man who would be governor: Jeb Bush.
Parked right outside my window, only a few feet away, is the motor home in which Bush and I will cruise the state during a six-day, fun-filled campaign tour. Unable to sleep, I lie in bed until about 6:15, when I straggle out to the parking lot. Cory Tilley, Bush's press secretary, meets me in front of the hotel and takes me over to see the man. "Hi," Bush smiles. "How are you?"
"I've been throwing up all night," I say while shaking his hand. "You didn't eat at Arby's last night, did you?" Bush shakes his head no. "Good thinking," I tell him. A slightly nervous Tilley later tells me that he hopes my vomiting isn't an omen for the rest of the trip. I make no promises, but as we depart for our first event A a breakfast roundtable with the Cape Coral Fraternal Order of Police -- I let everyone know I'll be passing on the runny eggs and greasy sausage.
Considered to be the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Jeb Bush is expected to come out of his party's September 8 primary in first place, with perhaps as much as 40 percent of the vote. That would place him in an October runoff against one of his three principal GOP challengers: Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, Secretary of State Jim Smith, or State Senate President Ander Crenshaw. If Bush were to win the runoff -- a prospect still very much in doubt -- he would then face a November showdown with Gov. Lawton Chiles, a politician who has never lost an election in his 35 years of public service.
Despite the fact that Bush has never run for elected office, many people are suggesting he has a chance to win. Of course, he does count among his assets one thing no other candidate can -- that powerhouse last name. It ensures instant voter recognition and provides an established campaign apparatus. His father won Florida in 1992, and the younger Bush has brought onboard as much of his dad's organizational network as he could muster.
The Bush name also means money. As of last month he had raised four million dollars, more than any other candidate in either party, with a sizable portion -- about fifteen percent -- coming from outside the state. As other Republican candidates are limping along with two or three paid staffers, Bush's juggernaut counts a staff of fifteen, spread among offices in Tallahassee, Orlando, and Miami.
In addition, the family name guarantees press attention. Earlier in the year, the Today show hit the campaign trail with Bush. The New York Times, Newsweek magazine, and USA Today have all published stories about Bush's run for office A a media onslaught his rivals could never hope to match. And though it might be easy to dismiss him as merely the son of a former president enjoying a free ride on his daddy's coattails, Bush has not taken the name for granted. He announced his candidacy extremely early, on January 1, 1993, and has been campaigning throughout the state six days a week, virtually every week, for more than a year. Usually he travels light -- a rented car with a staffer behind the wheel -- and hits a couple of events each day. But every so often Bush mounts a more ambitious outing, a motor home tour. This is the seventh, and by far the largest.
We are scheduled to appear at nearly 50 events in 28 towns over the next six days, and will log more than 1000 miles crisscrossing the state from Fort Myers to Okeechobee to Daytona Beach and then eventually down the east coast to Fort Lauderdale. The Bushcapade will include a lead car, a minivan, and the rather luxurious Coachmaster motor home for Bush, his wife Columba, son George, running mate Tom Feeney (a state representative from Orlando), and later Feeney's wife Ellen.
Off and on during the week, eight members of the press will join them on the motor home, though only I have signed on for all six days. Press secretary Cory Tilley initially was puzzled by my interest. "Are you sure you want to be there every day?" he had asked by phone from Tallahassee.
"Of course," I had assured him. "It sounds like fun." It also sounded like an unusual opportunity for an intimate look at Bush, at the emotions he plays to, and at the people who support him -- not to mention a week away from my office.
If Tilley was puzzled, Bush himself was cautious around me that first day, perhaps because of my digestive problems, but more than likely because I work for New Times. In 1991 the newspaper had published a highly unflattering story about Bush called "Dirty Money." I later learned that neither he nor his campaign manager had been consulted before Tilley invited me along. Bush's media consultant, Alex Castellanos, later told me: "Most campaigns wouldn't even let you follow the bus." Bush told other reporters on the trip that my presence was part of a grand experiment designed to test the limits of his campaign's open-press policy.
As we pull up to the Fraternal Order of Police hall in Cape Coral, the motor home stops in a no-parking zone and Bush jumps out. Like any savvy politician running against an incumbent these days, he understands that his support grows in proportion to the public's sense of fear and insecurity. And so it isn't surprising that on this first day, and throughout the week, the strident rhetoric of a law-and-order candidate takes center stage. "The first priority of government is public safety," Bush tells the officers gathered for the morning meeting. As a society, he asserts, we should be guided by a simple principle: "When you do something wrong, bad things should happen to you. We have to build a prison system big enough to put the bad people away long enough for our fear to subside. And then when prisoners go to prison, we'd better make sure that it's not soft time, and 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. We should require work. Prisoners ought to be building the prisons, they ought to be growing the crops, they ought to be cleaning up the highways."
That tough talk extends to the juvenile justice system as well. "We don't punish young people," Bush declares. "That should be at the core of our juvenile justice system. We should have punishment being the overriding philosophy in how we deal with children. That means more boot camps and fewer basket-weaving classes."
Retribution. Revenge. Bush appeals to a crude sort of siege mentality that is emerging in Florida today, born of a belief that our laws and the criminal justice system are incapable of protecting anyone. Bush tells the officers -- as he will all the groups he meets with on the Gulf Coast -- the story of the Miami funeral home employee who was recently beaten by a mob, robbed, and then shot to death. His voice is solemn, and the officers shake their heads in disgust. When Tom Feeney rises to speak, he, too, invokes the funeral home employee, but what Bush had done implicitly, Feeney takes a step further, laying the blame squarely at one man's feet. "That's the kind of society we live in," he tells the officers, "after four years of Lawton Chiles."
A call-in radio show is next, then a call-in television program and tours of a boot camp and a drug treatment facility for juveniles. After that it's time for lunch with the Lehigh Acres Community Council, where about 200 people have paid ten dollars apiece to hear Bush speak.
"Are you ready, baby?" Bush hollers to Columba in the back of the motor home as they arrive. It's a little ritual repeated at almost every stop on the trip. Bush has a way of saying baby that evokes the image of an old-time gangster calling to his favorite moll. They are undeniably cute together; she's about five feet, two inches tall, he is six feet four. Bush never fails to elicit from his audiences an affectionate "ooohhh" when he tells the story of how they met, more than twenty years ago while he was part of a high school exchange program in Mexico. "If I could have done a somersault, I would have," he grins.
At the luncheon several women tell Bush how much they admire his father and wish he was still president. The compliments point up an irony in Bush's race for governor, and in all the talk about Bush capitalizing on his father's name: In order to win in Florida Bush must mount the type of political campaign that defeated his father. He is striving to combine the best elements of both Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, but wrapped inside a highly conservative agenda.
Like Perot, Jeb Bush is the businessman who portrays his lack of political experience (he tends to play down his brief stint as commerce secretary under Gov. Bob Martinez) as a virtue rather than a hindrance. He talks forcefully about starting a business with his friend Armando Codina, the Codina Bush Group, and building it from three employees to more than 160. He tells his audiences that it is time for government to be run as if it were a business in which the customer -- the taxpayer -- is always right. And like Clinton, the younger Bush has positioned himself along generational lines, striking home the theme that it is time for a change.
"I'm a 41-year-old man who has been relatively successful in business, who has been married to the same precious, beautiful woman for twenty years," he declares in speech after speech. "And we came to Miami to pursue our dreams. We have three children, George, who is eighteen; Noel, who is sixteen; and Jeb, who is ten years old. I look into the future through my children's eyes, not through my own eyes any more, and what I see scares me and it angers me A that my generation, our generation, may be the first generation to leave less opportunity for our loved ones than was given to us. You see George and Barbara Bush, they did their part. Their generation passed the baton off to this one, and we've had an abundance of opportunity.
"But look into the future through your children's eyes and can we honestly say today that, with the system of government we have, our future will be brighter for our children than it was for us? I don't think so. We are the most violent state of all the 50 states, with a welfare system creating the wrong incentives for the wrong people that we've doubled the welfare roles in this state in the last five years. We've created in the last decade a permanent underclass. I don't think our children can have a brighter future with an education system so mired in politics, so mired in social engineering and bureaucracy, that all we get is a mediocre result. And I know as I look into the future through my children's eyes that it will be near impossible for our kids to have more opportunity unless we return to the fundamental basic values that keep a society intact. Values such as work. Values such as strong families."
As Bush answers questions from the luncheon crowd, I notice that Lehigh's Miss Patriotic -- a young woman who would seem to epitomize Bush's vision of the future and who also happened to get a more boisterous round of applause than the candidate when she walked into the luncheon -- is no longer in the room. I rush outside and see her, off in the distance, walking with her father. Breaking into a slow trot across the parking lot of the Admiral Lehigh Golf and Country Club, I sing out, "Yoo-whooooo, Miss Patriotic!" and begin to chuckle as I realize that this is the essence of Republican politics, the apple-pie, God-bless-America, live-free-or-die, country-club circuit I'm on for five more days, where candidates are likely to be upstaged by hometown favorites like Miss Patriotic, and as likely to brag about which professional golfers are supporting them as they are about which newspapers have endorsed them. ("You know, Greg Norman contributed to my campaign," Bush later beams.) Republicans!
Miss Patriotic is sixteen-year-old Emily Heller, and hearing my calls, she turns and waits for my approach. I have two main questions: How does one become Miss Patriotic? She says she won the Stars and Stripes pageant on the Fourth of July. "I wore something red, white, and blue," she explains. "And I spoke about the freedom and opportunity that every American enjoys." And what does she think of Jeb Bush? "I really like what he has to say about family values," she replies, though she withholds a formal endorsement. And with that her father pulls alongside in the family car and she hops in. "So long," she says, waving and smiling, not so much to me but to everyone and everything in her path.
If only Miss Patriotic could meet Venessa Boren and instill in her a little cheer. Bush and I met ten-year-old Venessa later that afternoon at a meeting of the Lee County Young Republicans. Only about a dozen people had shown up at the University of South Florida campus to hear Bush, who nonetheless gave them the complete speech, and followed with questions and answers. It was at this point that young Venessa, accompanied by her father, raised her hand. When Bush called on her, she began a long, thoughtful question about the growing problems caused by illegal immigrants, especially the staggering health care costs associated with them.
"We've been on the road doing this for about ten hours now," Bush responded, "and that was the best question of the day."
"And we've had five reporters riding with us all day, as well!" Tom Finney chimed in.
Venessa didn't even crack a smile. Bush answered the question as best he could, outlining a get-tough policy with regard to illegal immigrants, but also explaining that the state is required to provide medical attention to all indigent patients, whether or not they are citizens.
"I think there should be a limit to how much health care we should provide," Venessa told me after the meeting. Her classes at school include a growing number of immigrant children. "Government has to pay for them," she noted sternly.
Should she really be this concerned at such a young age? "People need to be involved in the issues that affect them," she said. "Besides, I like listening to politics. It sort of fascinates me." But don't expect Venessa to run for office someday. "I plan on being a marine biologist and living in Australia, somewhere very secluded," she added. Her precocious expatriate plans stem from her disillusionment with the United States. "I think America, while it may be the best country in some ways, it is also probably the worst country," she sighed as her father looked on, beaming with pride.
Our next stop is WBR-TV A dubbed "We Be Republican" television by the Bushcapade press corps. The station is unabashed in its zeal for the Grand Old Party. "This is right-wing biased television, absolutely," ad executive Gabe Ambrosio gleefully admits. "We're right up front about it." Bush receives great television coverage throughout his time on the Gulf Coast. In addition to the talk shows, nearly all the local news programs broadcast reports about his visit. "It's great here," Bush grins. "In Dade County, to get any coverage you've basically got to have a sheet over your face and be dead. "If you've got a sheet over your face and you're alive, then you might at least get on Channel 7."
The high spirits continue through the day's final event, a barbecue fundraiser at the waterfront home of Claudia and Richard Cowart. In less than 90 minutes, Bush walks out of the party with a tray full of ribs and checks totaling nearly $10,000 in contributions.
After fifteen hours, Bush is finally warming up to me, in part because I've assumed the role of motor-home jester. On the way to the hotel, I point out how strange it would be if we got into a fatal accident right now. Besides Jeb, Columba, and their son George, Edward Kennedy is with us (he's a photographer for the Palm Beach Post). "Imagine some confused editor getting a list of these names in the middle of the night over the news wire," I say. "He's trying to figure out what the former president, his son, and the senior senator from Massachusetts are doing in a motor home out in the Florida boonies." Imagine the headlines if the accident happened on deadline and the details were sketchy. Bush chuckles at the prospect. But at that very moment the motor home is cut off by a horn-blasting freak of a driver. We swerve dramatically to avoid hitting the car. For a moment everyone is quiet, then Bush begins laughing hysterically. Wheezing, his face turning red, he slaps me on the knee and we all begin to cackle.
After checking into the Punta Gorda Holiday Inn and a brief stint in the bar, I notice that the first event tomorrow, according to the press schedule, is a 7:30 a.m. breakfast in the hotel restaurant with extensive remarks expected by the candidate. I set my alarm for 8:15.
"There you are," Cory Tilley greets me as I stumble, bags in tow, up to the front desk of the Punta Gorda Holiday Inn shortly before 9:00 a.m. "Where were you? We had a huge crowd this morning for you press cynics. A huge crowd."
Soon the candidate comes strolling through the lobby followed by a serious-looking Diane D'Andrea, Charlotte County chairwoman of the Bush for Governor campaign. As we board the motor home, D'Andrea briefs Bush on how things are shaping up in the county. She notes that most of the doctors in the area have come out in support of Ander Crenshaw, the president of the state senate. "I told them, 'Okay, but you know Jeb is going to get the nomination,'" she recounts for Bush, who is scanning several morning papers from around the state. "I told them, that in September, after the primary, they could buy their way back in [to Bush's good graces with campaign contributions]. We'll punish them."
Bush looks up from his newspaper. "Not punish," he corrects her with a smile. "You mean include them in our winning team." D'Andrea grins and nods. Feeney then reads aloud a Tampa Tribune article in which Crenshaw once again launches an attack on gays. "Oh, great," Bush responds, uncomfortable at the prospect of fielding a new round of press questions about the subject. "Back to the big issue of the campaign." He then grabs the end of his tie, holds it straight up, lets his head drop to his right shoulder, and flops out his tongue, as if he'd just been hanged. In the last 24 hours, at two events, he has been confronted by gays, including one man suffering from AIDS. In each instance Bush handled their questions deftly but without sugarcoating his positions. He flatly tells them he is opposed to any expansion of civil rights laws that would explicitly prohibit discrimination against homosexuals.
On the agenda today is a series of walking tours. Bush will stroll the corridors of the Punta Gorda City Hall with Mayor Rufus Lazzell. He'll visit the Port Charlotte Cultural Center, where Columba will buy him a stuffed toy called a "damnit doll" that can be thrown, pounded, or maniacally twisted to relieve stress. He'll tour the Venice Police Department, where Chief Joseph Slapp will ask Bush quite earnestly, on three separate occasions during his 45-minute visit, to please consider him for the job of FBI director should Bush ever become President of the United States.
And he'll call on the folks at Kimal Lumber, where, because of a fluke of timing, he arrives at the mill just as the five o'clock whistle sounds and nearly all the employees head for the main gate while Bush is in the office meeting with Kimal's manager. Several staffers try to stop the workers from going home so Bush can meet them and shake their hands -- which, after all, was one of the reasons for the visit -- but the staffers quickly relent when they realize it's probably not a good idea to irritate people with such ready access to two-by-fours. Bush hangs around the mill for more than an hour anyway, saying he simply loves the smell of fresh-cut lumber.
Between tours Bush pays his respects to the area's various newspapers. At the Charlotte Sun Herald he is asked if he's concerned with the perceived importance to his campaign of the Christian conservative movement, and whether he might wind up being too indebted to their cause. "I don't sense it as this jihad that you're describing," Bush replies. "I don't know what it is they would ask me, but I'm probably in agreement already." When the meeting concludes, the publisher, Derek Dunn-Rankin, and the other members of the paper's editorial board adjourn for a private luncheon with Bush and Feeney at the Charlotte Harbor Yacht Club. Among today's three newspapers, the publishers, editors, and reporters he met were all men, all white.
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.
Bush has been writing a lot of checks lately, mostly for a series of television commercials scheduled to begin airing across Florida this week. The first spot deals exclusively with crime. Bush is nervous about how they will be received. Ed Kennedy, the Palm Beach Post photographer, tells him not to worry. He saw the ad around 4:30 in the morning and it seemed fine. Bush appears stunned. "Did you really see it at 4:30?" he asks. Definitely before 5:00 a.m., Kennedy says. "Four-thirty in the morning. Great, another goddamn conspiracy," Bush moans.
For the rest of the day and into the night, he will repeatedly ask members of his staff to find out who authorized buying media time in the middle of the night. "I probably am a hard person to work for," he allows. "I demand excellence. But I don't yell and I don't scream. And I don't like mistakes that can be avoided."
Today will not be a good day in that regard. Bush has four staffers traveling with him on this leg of the trip. He refers to them as his "gladiators for change." Cory Tilley is the 26-year-old press secretary who formerly worked as spokesman for the governor of Maine. More seasoned and less in awe of the campaign trail, he is a professed worrier. At one point he marvels that he doesn't yet have an ulcer, but the way he says it suggests he's actually disappointed. Tom DiNanno, who is also 26, has been with the campaign a few months and has the unenviable responsibility of driving the motor home. Brett Doster, 23 years old, is a recent graduate of the Citadel, the South Carolina military school recently forced by court order to accept women. Andy Feeney, also 23, is no relation to Tom Feeney, but when Andy, who also comes from Orlando, began seeing "Feeney" campaign signs around town a couple of years ago, he contacted Tom Feeney out of curiosity. That led to his volunteering at the state representative's district office, and now to being here on the road with him.
The problems start in the afternoon. Highlands County organizers for Bush's campaign, it seems, have drawn up a list of activities for the candidate's visit. But the statewide staff A including Tilley, DiNanno, Doster, and Andy Feeney A has its own agenda. As a result Bush keeps being told he needs to be in different places at the same time, which does not please him. Rather than show any displeasure with the county organizers, who are all volunteers and often major contributors, Bush keeps prodding his paid staff to get its act together. "Are we in sync yet?" he glares at DiNanno after arriving 30 minutes late for a rally.
"Yes, sir," DiNanno replies.
"Because you know we haven't been in sync," Bush continues.
In an effort to make up for the snafus, DiNanno and Doster line up another police station for Bush to tour. But the local county coordinator tells him they don't have time for the police station. "The county coordinator says we don't have time," Bush tells DiNanno. "What's going on?" DiNanno jumps out of the motor home for a quick meeting with the other staffers, and then returns to announce they've decided to cancel the police station and go wherever the county coordinator wants.
In truth the local volunteers have screwed up. All schedules are supposed to be cleared through campaign headquarters in Tallahassee, and this one wasn't. "We're getting rolled right now," Cory Tilley says as Bush wanders up and down the aisles of a Kash-N-Karry supermarket in Sebring at the county coordinator's request. "We didn't even know we were coming here until fifteen minutes ago. We're getting rolled by the county organizers and the candidate isn't happy."
What Bush needs is a good meal. What he needs is some swamp cabbage, an Okeechobee delicacy that combines boiled sabal palm cabbages with several pounds of bacon and sugar. Politically, most people wouldn't expect Okeechobee County to be a friendly place for someone like Bush. The overwhelming majority of registered voters here are Democrats, but they're "Southern Democrats," conservative as the day is long. More than 150 of them have turned out at a Grange hall, and although Bush is scheduled to make only brief remarks, the crowd has energized him. He gives the most rousing speech of the first three days, highlighted by near deafening applause when he says: "I love my dad dearly and I think he was a great president."
Although 90 percent of these people won't be able to vote for him in the primary because they are registered Democrats, Tom Feeney points out they'll be getting a nice consolation prize: "We'll probably pull out of that room $10,000, maybe $20,000, in campaign contributions this cycle and again in November."
After a three-hour drive north to Deltona, we arrive at the Best Western shortly before midnight. By the time I check in and get my room key, I learn the hotel bar has just closed. "Some advance work," I mutter to the front desk clerk. "And we're supposed to believe this man can run the whole damn state when he can't even find hotels with bars that stay open past midnight?" With bags and key in hand, I wander into the bar anyway. "We're closed!" shouts the woman behind the bar. I explain to her that I was hoping to get two double margaritas in plastic cups to take back to my room. She seems dubious. They're not even really for me, I tell her. "They're for Jeb Bush. You know, the president's son. He's running for governor," I explain, handing her a "Bush '94" button. "He can get mighty testy if he doesn't get his bedtime margarita." Between the button and the promise of a hefty tip, she finally relents.
In the parking lot, on my way to my room, I run into Tom DiNanno. He's cleaning out the motor home, readying it for the morning. It had been a long day for all of us, but especially for DiNanno, and I think briefly about offering him one of my drinks. "Rough day," I say.
"I understand when Jeb gets mad at us," DiNanno says, immediately picking up on my meaning. "It's okay. He just wants to do good. You have to realize, there is something special going on here. I believe in what's happening. It's not blind. I believe." DiNanno feels so passionately about Bush that when he talks of the campaign and the people involved, his hands tremble. At the moment, though, he is upset with himself; in some way, he may have let Bush down today. He promises things will go more smoothly tomorrow -- no glitches, no mistakes.
From my room I see DiNanno spreading a road map across the trunk of one of the cars. He is joined by Andy Feeney and Brett Doster. Under the lights of the parking lot, they go over the directions they'll take the next day. To make absolutely sure they know where they're going, all three get into the car and actually drive the route in advance. As a result they don't get to bed until about 3:00 a.m.
The Bush caravan has now nearly doubled in size. In addition to the lead car, the minivan, and the motor home, we've been joined by a second minivan and a large truck with the words "Marty's Grip and Lighting" stenciled on the door. A crew of eight accompanies the new vehicles. They are here to shoot footage of Bush on the campaign trail for use in commercials later in the campaign. Out of seven hours of film they'll shoot, they hope for perhaps 90 seconds of usable material.
The process makes Bush uneasy. Following the first stops of the day, including breakfast at a senior center, where members of the film crew seemed to terrify the elderly residents by dangling lighting equipment and boom mikes over their heads, Bush announces agitatedly, "We're going to have to have a sit-down about this." As he returns to the motor home and tries to tear the wireless microphone off his back, he grumbles, "I hate this. This is only the second event of the day and I already hate this."
"Some people it bothers more than others," shrugs director Alex Castellanos. "Jeb just wants to talk to the folks out there, and here I am making it an artificial situation. But he also understands that we want to use TV to talk to people in their living rooms, and that it's a powerful message. If I step too much on his toes, he'll let me know."
Bush quickly relaxes in the safety of the motor home. "I know it's necessary and it works," he says. "That's what the scary part is -- it will all turn out so informal and so natural."
Castellanos and Bush have been friends for years. Born in Cuba but raised in the United States, Castellanos is considered to be a media star in Republican Party circles, having produced thousands of commercials over his twenty-year career, including a few for the Bush-Quayle campaign in 1992. "We're just going to go out there and give magic a chance to happen," Castellanos says of his goal for this trip. But magic doesn't come cheap. The crew A not counting Castellanos A which will hang on Bush for the next three days, costs the campaign approximately $5000 a day.
Some of that money is to be spent conducting interviews with Bush supporters. At one point crew members corner Ethel Schuster, a 72-year-old Fort Pierce woman whose sweet face says All-American Grandmother. Castellanos isn't with the crew during this interview. In his place as director is Pete Pessel, who asks Schuster a few general questions, hoping for a three-second snippet that might be used in one of Bush's commercials. Schuster appears thrilled that anyone would ask her opinion about anything, and she does her best to provide thoughtful answers. But after a couple of minutes, in the middle of her response about why she likes Bush's plan to overhaul education, the sound man runs out of tape.
"Cut!" yells the sound man.
"Cut!" yells the grip.
"Cut! Cut!" yells the gaffer.
All of these men shouting "Cut!" are standing a few feet from Schuster, who has no idea what's going on, or that it even concerns her. She was simply having a nice discussion with Pete, she thought, and if they wanted to film it, fine. But by the fourth or fifth shout of "Cut!" Pessel finally hears the cries of his crew, spins 180 degrees on his heels, and begins walking back to the camera, also yelling, "Cut!" Meanwhile, Schuster is left standing alone, still diligently answering the question posed to her, until she realizes no one is listening any more. Finally she just walks away.
One person who would never be left standing is Bush's wife, Columba. Throughout the trip, she reads a book in Spanish. Its title: Secrets About Men That Every Woman Should Know. "I want to keep my marriage interesting," she says.
"I know that book," I tell her. "Have you gotten to the part where it tells you to greet your husband at the door holding a martini and wearing nothing but a smile?"
"Is that in here?" she asks, eyebrows arching.
"Along with a host of special exercises," I offer. (Further teasing her, Bush will grab the book as they head for the hotel that night and declare, "Okay, baby, let's find out what you've learned today." To which Columba cries, "Jeb!")
Reporters who have covered the couple in the past say Columba is far less shy than she was only a few months ago. And indeed she is without doubt the friendliest and most pleasant person on the outing. "It's fun," she confides. "I love having the excuse to eat all the junk food. I think that's the best part of the campaign." The worst part? That's easy: "To win the election you have to sacrifice everything you love the most. For me it was my privacy."
So why go through it? "My children asked me the same question," she says. "They wanted to know what I thought about him running. This is what makes him happy, and I want a happy husband. That's what makes me happy." And if he loses, she says, she's not worried how he will take it. "From what I have seen of the Bushes, they know how to win and they know how to lose. They put their whole life into politics. I've never seen a family that loves their country so much. I'm truly amazed by it."
The Bush dynasty involves more than just Jeb and his presidential father. Jeb's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a United States senator from Connecticut. And his older brother, George, recently won the Republican nomination for governor in Texas and will face Democratic incumbent Ann Richards in the Fall. Comparisons between the Bush family and Kennedy clan are natural, but they draw dumbfounded stares from Jeb, who expresses discomfort at being included in the same sentence as that liberal brood.
And like the Kennedys, the Bushes are not without skeletons in their family closets. Younger brother Neil became the unwitting poster boy for public outrage surrounding the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s; his role in a failed Colorado S&L named Silverado seemed to symbolize the social malaise his brother Jeb has been criticizing during this campaign. (Jeb Bush has flirted with S&L troubles as well. A bad loan to a partner of Bush's from the now defunct Broward Federal Savings & Loan drew the attention of regulators. Bush was never accused of any wrongdoing and he eventually helped repay a small portion of the debt.) Several times during the course of the motor-home trip, callers to radio or television programs confuse Jeb with brother Neil, and chastise him for the debacle in Colorado. After one such call, Ellen Debenport, from the St. Petersburg Times suggests Bush might want to have his brother Neil appear in a commercial for the campaign saying, "It was me. I was the one with the S&L mess." I quickly add that at the end of the spot Neil could look forlornly into the camera and confess: "I should have listened to my big brothers." That way the commercial could run in both Florida and Texas. Bush smiles at the thought. "I don't think so," he says.
Sharing anything with big brother George might be a problem anyway. One morning I asked Bush if he had any personal bets with his brother in Texas about who will win. In a rare fit of pique, he told me to save that question for later. That night, when I brought it up again, he appeared annoyed, and said he had no bets with his brother. "Come on," I prodded. "The two of you didn't make any sort of wager? When was the last time you two talked?"
"Christmas," he replied. The answer hung in the air. Jeb and George's battles for the governors' mansions in two of the nation's most populous states have prompted an avalanche of publicity, and further intensified that notion of dynasty. They are both conservative, both running on anticrime, anti-big-government, family-values platforms. And yet the brothers haven't talked in nearly eight months? "I think we actually talked last at Easter," Jeb later corrects. But the point is made: They are not close.
Other members of the Florida Bush campaign paint a picture of intense sibling rivalry. "Cain and Abel," Alex Castellanos muses. "This is a very competitive family." George owns the Texas Rangers baseball team. Jeb recently bought a piece of the new NFL franchise Jacksonville Jaguars. Both are aggressively successful businessmen. And now they both seek political office. Some members of the campaign say that when George, who is five years older than Jeb, began campaigning, he appropriated much of the research Jeb had accumulated in Florida and adapted it to his own needs in Texas. Castellanos sees Jeb as the idealist in the family and George as the more politically astute, win-at-all-costs heir to the Bush mantle. Jeb doesn't want to talk about it.
During a morning interview with a pair of zany DJs on a Melbourne radio station, Bush is finally asked a question he hasn't been asked before. If he becomes governor, and recently indicted boxing promoter Don King is convicted, would Bush consider granting King a pardon? "I don't think so," the candidate says. "I would have freed James Brown, though."
That Bush might identify with the Godfather of Soul is probably not surprising. Indeed there are those on his campaign staff who see him as a Republican rocker. "He has that rock-star kind of feel," Cory Tilley says earnestly, noting several young men and women who have tracked Bush from the speech he made after the radio show to a bowling alley on the outskirts of Melbourne. "What other candidates would have people following them like this?"
Perhaps a better question is: What other candidate would tour a bowling alley at ten o'clock on a Friday morning?
"Jeb, roll my ball," one elderly man pleads, his voice cracking with emotion, as Bush walks by.
"Oh, I don't have the right shoes," Bush answers and moves quickly away from him. Bush realizes that the bowling alley -- like any athletic endeavor -- is a potential mine field for a candidate. What if he throws a gutter ball or -- perish the thought -- slips and lands on his ass? In a political age in which symbols are often more important than words or ideas, nobody wants to hand an opponent a metaphor for their own failings or inadequacies. (Remember Michael Dukakis's little ride in a tank?)
So Bush moves through the crowd as quickly as possible. "Roll one, Jeb," another man calls out. Bush plays dumb, smiles, and keeps moving. But there are certain rules in politics that cannot be ignored. One of them is this: You never bite the hand that feeds your campaign. So when Joseph Fraumeni, owner of the alley and an important contributor, tells Bush he'd like the honor of bowling a frame with the next governor of the State of Florida, there is only one thing Bush can say: "Size twelve."
As Fraumeni runs to get Bush a pair of shoes, the camera crew that had been hanging on Bush's every move this morning begins to set up for the bowling shot. But before they can get into place, Alex Castellanos steps in. No film, he tells them.
Sliding into the multicolored bowling shoes, Bush is tense. "These shoes have been here a while," he says, forcing a smile. He picks out a ball and follows Fraumeni to the lane of honor. Photographers scurry down the gutters so they can face Bush and capture the moment. He raises the ball to his chin, takes three large steps, and lets it fly. The ball moves dangerously close to the right gutter before slamming into two pins. "The two on the far right," Castellanos says, making a little political joke. Bush gets a fresh set of pins for his second ball, which plows straight down the middle of the lane, shattering everything in its path for a strike. He decides to quit while he's ahead, and sits right down to take off his shoes. "Did you see that strike?" he asks, smiling. "There are a lot of bowlers out there who vote."
Tom Feeney then proceeds to knock down the same two pins Bush had nailed with his first ball. But rather than resetting the pins, Feeney will try to pick up the spare A as good a job description as any for the lieutenant governor. However, he knocks only one more pin off the right edge of the set. "It's my role to make sure we stay to the right," he laughs.
Thirty-six-year-old Feeney knows his place in this campaign. More conservative than his running mate, he has been called Jeb Bush's Dan Quayle. "There were two things said about Quayle that nobody who knows me has said about me," Feeney counters. "One was that he stepped on his tongue while he was talking; in other words, that he wasn't terribly articulate. And the other was that he wasn't very bright, that Marilyn was the brains of the family. Well," he smiles, "to some extent Ellen is the brains in our family. I'm not denying that. [Ellen Feeney is a chemical engineer at the Kennedy Space Center.] But even my colleagues in the House will tell you that they think I am one of the best debaters. They will also tell you I am more a policy wonk than anybody in either the Senate or the House."
Feeney opposes abortion under all circumstances, even in the event of rape and incest, except where it would save the life of the mother. He opposes condom distribution in schools. And like Bush, he opposes any specific new laws to protect the civil rights of gays, and believes that homosexuality in itself is wrong. "But I also believe, without getting into theology, that the last person who was perfect is about 2000 years old," he adds. "In my religion, you can talk about the sin without hating the sinner."
Earlier in the trip, Feeney had been on the cell phone trying to shore up support when the issue of gun control was raised. Did he endorse each American's constitutional right to bear arms? "I've got my concealed-weapon permit in my pocket right now," he had boasted to the person on the other end of the line.
"Are you packin' right now?" I asked when he hung up.
"No," he assured me. "It's just the principle of the thing." Later, though, he explained it's actually more than just principle. And in fact, with the campaign and the added notoriety, he said he planned to buy a gun very soon. I thanked him for the warning.
"This is going to be brutal," Bush says at the start of our last day. "I've got no more clean clothes. I've got no more undies. I've got no more socks. I've got no more shirts."
In perhaps the most amazing show of support to date, more than 120 people show up at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday and pay five dollars apiece to hear him speak at a diner in Port St. Lucie. Over the next twelve hours, we will attend, film crew in tow, two picnics -- one in Palm Beach and the other in Broward -- and tape one final radio program. Though the events are few, the week has taken its toll, and everyone is moving more slowly. Bush does get a boost in Palm Beach when a crowd of 400 supporters repeatedly interrupts his speech by bursting into chants of "Jeb! Jeb! Jeb!" (Cory Tilley later notes, "It's a good name to chant. Try chanting Law-ton, it's not as good.") But even that buzz wears off, so that by the time we reach Pompano Beach, and the rain begins to pour during the middle of his speech, Bush just keeps talking -- he's on autopilot, a windup doll who doesn't seem to know any better. A short time later, shivering under a blanket in the motor home, he appears ready to head home. But one last event remains.
From Pompano we backtrack north to Lighthouse Point for a 7:30 p.m. fundraiser at the home of Joe and Angela Saviano. Our numbers, however, have been steadily dwindling as the day has progressed. Big Feeney (Tom), Little Feeney (Andy), and Brainy Feeney (Ellen, who was late in joining the Bushcapade) split off from the group earlier in the day for a photo shoot in Miami.
Now there is considerable debate among the survivors on the motor home as to who really needs to accompany Jeb and Columba to this final cocktail party. Ellen Debenport, from the St. Petersburg Times, has the edgy feel of a woman who, if forced to hear Bush talk once more about looking into the future through the eyes of his children, might snap and gouge out Bush's own eyes with a shrimp fork. Linda Kleindienst, of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, appears to be approaching a state of exhaustion. Cory Tilley, having given up any hope of actually getting an ulcer on this particular road trip, also seems willing to call it quits.
But ever the vigilant gladiators, Tom DiNanno and Brett Doster argue about which of them gets to keep working. Eventually DiNanno loses the argument and agrees to go home early, after only a twelve-hour day. With that decided, the departees board the motor home for Miami, leaving behind the minivan for Bush, Columba, Doster, and, of course, me. Naked women couldn't drag me from Bush at this point. Having signed on for the whole twisted ride, I know that if it means subjecting myself to one more beautiful home, with splendid food and unlimited liquor, that is simply the price I'm going to have to pay for thoroughness.
The Saviano's Mediterranean-style villa sits on the Intracoastal, only a three-iron away from the ocean. This was scheduled as a small, private, $100-a-plate gathering of influential, financially comfortable people, and about 50 have turned out, not counting the servants or the bartender, who by now has poured me a tall glass of Chivas over ice. As I settle into a corner table on the back patio, Bush glides through the crowd, shaking hands and making small talk. Columba sits down beside me and says she's worried that her husband is going to catch cold. "He's like a little kid," she observes. "I'd like to take better care of him, but he's very, very stubborn.
You know that, don't you, that he's very stubborn."
"Like a mule," I respond. She nods in agreement.
When Bush works his way over to the buffet, his eyes light up. No more burgers, beans, and wieners. The spread includes veal with sauteed peppers, eggplant parmesan, yellow rice, potatoes, a magnificent bowl of antipasto, and a plate full of sliced red tomatoes topped with prosciutto and cheese. A far cry from Okeechobee swamp cabbage.
Though it's not that far in actual distance, we have traveled light years from that rural Grange hall in Okeechobee County. What bizarre coalitions politicians must build, especially those running for statewide office in Florida. It's a long way, in every respect, from Little Havana to Pensacola, but Bush seems to have that chameleonlike ability every politician needs -- he is as comfortable chewing the fat about water management districts over a plate of swamp cabbage as he is discussing business incentives between bites of veal, though his Texas drawl is decidedly less noticeable here than it was earlier in the week.
Our host, Angela Saviano, joins Brett Doster and me at a corner table near the kitchen. She is blessed with both manners and style, and is clearly an educated woman, which makes our conversation all the more strange. She is discussing the problems of our society, and specifically her views on juvenile justice. What would be so horrible, she asks, if we tarred and feathered some of these hoodlums? I laugh, but soon realize she's not joking. Would it really be so wrong? she asks. Or what about placing them in leg and arm restraints, she suggests, like the pillories that held ne'er-do-wells in old New England town squares. They could be displayed somewhere publicly for a couple of days, she suggests, so their girlfriends could come by and laugh at them. Essentially, she explains, we must find ways to humiliate these children publicly, to ridicule them so they learn the difference between right and wrong.
Another guest at the party bemoans the unfettered immigration that is dooming Florida. "The whole country is going into the toilet," she complains. "They are coming here from Haiti and Cuba and just settling here. They don't even have to speak English."
Shortly after 9:00 p.m., Bush is called on to speak. Standing alongside the Savianos swimming pool, bathed only in the light of a full moon, he launches into his standard speech. "I'm a Republican and I'm a pretty conservative man," he tells those who have gathered around. "And when I look into the future through my children's eyes, I see decline."
He finishes, as he does every speech, with what he refers to as his "call to arms," a pledge for a revolution in 1995 if he is elected. "If you stay involved, it will happen," he promises. "Look at the alternatives if you stand pat. If you do your part, I will vow to you that I will stay focused on the principles that I believe and I will govern based on those principles. And I will fight as hard as I humanly can fight to make these dreams come true."
By 9:30 we are on the road. Doster behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Jeb and Columba in the back seat. Bush begins to melt into the seat. "Brutal day," he groans. "I'm a tired little candidate." Before we reach I-95, however, we encounter a half-naked man dancing in the middle of an intersection. Over and over he yells, "Watch yourself! Watch yourself!" as a cop by the curb tries to coax him out of the street. Bush perks up at this impromptu bit of street theater. "He's all fucked up," Bush laughs. "Look at him." The man dances, barefoot, up to the front of the minivan, stares in, and then runs off.
On the interstate Bush makes a few last calls: "I think we had a good week..." and pauses to needle Doster. "I've never seen you drive so slow," he chides the Citadel grad, who is doing 55.
"Jebbie!" Columba says. "You're terrible."
"I'm serious," he continues. "These boys are battle-tested. They know what I want."
Doster punches it up to 80 and Bush gets back on the phone. "I'm not going to do anything but go to church tomorrow," he says. "And if I work at all, I'm going to work in bed."
To take me home, we get off at the NW 79th Street exit. "Do we have the doors locked?" Bush asks. Heading east on 79th, we approach the INS headquarters at Biscayne Boulevard. "It's a Kafka novel in there," he remarks. "They treat people like dirt." Crossing the causeway, Bush points out the city's skyline for Doster, who has never been to Miami. He then offers a few final thoughts about the trip. "I think we're taking things to another level," he says. "After a year of being out there, the campaign has really started now."
Doster pulls up to my building and Bush pats me on the back. "I'm glad you came," he says. "It made it more enjoyable." I give him a New Times cap, which he gamely puts on as Doster snaps our picture. And then they're off.
Watching them drive away, I give a little wave. "See you at the inauguration," I yell. "And like the man says, 'Watch yourself! Watch yourself!'''