Longform

Road Show

Page 6 of 13

WEDNESDAY
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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede