Road Show

Page 9 of 13

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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede