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Bush in the Wilderness

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The Bushes, explains a close family associate, “have use for you, they have use for me, they have use for Karl. There is always business being transacted. But in terms of what they think of his character, they think [Rove]’s a shithead.”

A Jeb Bush candidacy might be useful for both men. But conversely, Jeb Bush, says a former Bush 43 White House official, “is the only Republican candidate who could co-opt him and make him irrelevant. He’s at the mercy of what happens with Jeb.”

Privately, George W. Bush has expressed ambivalence about Jeb Bush’s running for president. “I’m not sure he likes it, the idea of Jeb running,” says an associate of the president who has talked to him about it.

It’s easy to see why. His brother might supplant his tenuous legacy. And in a campaign, Jeb would invariably be asked to account for W.’s failures. “He’s going to get a question that no other Republican has had to answer in his first interview,” this associate notes. “ ‘What is your brother’s biggest mistake?’ ”

In Bushworld, a powerful paternal and fraternal dynamic has driven the family. Both Jeb Bush and W. spent much of their adult lives competing for the favor of their father. The brotherly combat went back to childhood, when George would line up his brothers for mock executions. “When they were young, Jeb was somebody for George to torture,” John Ellis told the Bush-family biographer Peter Schweizer. “As a kid, George viewed him as a completely unnecessary addition to the family … I think that carried on for a long time.”

In high school, Jeb went through a short period of rebellion as a member of the Andover Socialist Club, smoking pot and wearing his hair long. But unlike W., he settled down just as quickly, meeting his wife, Columba, while on an exchange program in Mexico when he was 17. He got a degree in Latin American studies from the University of Texas, married Columba, and joined Texas Commerce Bank.

Nineteen eighty, the year H.W. first ran for the presidency, was the defining year for Jeb. He had quit his banking career to work full time for his dad, campaigning for him in Puerto Rico, where his Spanish helped his father win the primary.

After the Reagan-Bush ticket won the White House, Jeb moved from the family seat in Texas to make his way in Florida. The reason he left would define him politically and personally: His wife, Columba, known as Colu, had experienced racism among their white, Republican circles in Houston.

When I ask Bush about this, he acknowledges that it happened. “Subtle, subtle,” he says. “It’s very different now, very welcoming, very open, particularly the big open areas.”

Colu gave Jeb an ultimatum: They could either move back to Mexico or to Miami, where her sister lived. He was happy to leave, says a close associate, because “he didn’t want to be another Bush in Texas.”

The first rule of the Bush family has always been to get rich before entering politics, as 41 had done when he moved to Texas from Connecticut and made his millions. Jeb Bush established his financial independence by partnering on a new real-estate company with Armando Codina, a Cuban immigrant and millionaire entrepreneur who had befriended George H.W. Bush and worked on his 1980 campaign for president. Codina made Jeb his partner and renamed the business Codina Bush Group, giving him a 40 percent stake in the profits. By 1987, he was appointed the state’s secretary of Commerce.

As his brother floundered with booze and bad business deals, Jeb quickly surpassed W. on the ladder. But the turning point came in 1994, when Jeb Bush ran for governor of Florida. Around that time, George W. had been convinced by Karl Rove he could make a run at Texas governor Ann Richards. Both had their mother’s card file of donors and supporters to aid their campaigns, but Jeb had his parents’ enthusiastic favor. Bush 41 reportedly burst into tears while trying to describe what it meant to him that Jeb was running. And privately Barbara Bush yelled at W. for running at the same time, saying it would soak up contributions they needed for “Jebbie.”

But W. had a secret weapon in Rove, who had spent the past decade helping Republicans regain power in Texas by using special-interest pacs to aid key Republican races throughout the state. And the animating drive for W. was clear: to overcome the shadow of his father after years of falling short. As Election Day approached in 1994, W. told a friend not to “underestimate what you can learn from a failed presidency,” referring to his father, who had been beaten by Bill Clinton two years before.


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