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Bush in the Wilderness

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Jeb was the clear favorite to win his race. But he was hit by a series of late-breaking robocalls by his Democratic opponent, incumbent governor Lawton Chiles, warning that Bush was a tax cheat and his running mate wanted to abolish Social Security.

The family was shocked when the family clown won his race and Jeb, the meticulous wonk, lost his. George H.W. and Barbara were inordinately disappointed for Jeb, and George injured W.’s feelings when he lamented Jeb’s loss in the same phone call he congratulated W. for his win. “Why do you feel bad about Jeb?” George W. was overheard to say. “Why don’t you feel good about me?”

Afterward H.W. told the press, “The joy is in Texas, but our hearts are in Florida.”

What Jeb didn’t have that W. did, of course, was a Karl Rove. “Jeb is smarter than George W. and has greater talent,” says a former White House official in 43’s administration who has worked closely with Jeb, “but he obviously suffers from those types of smart people who don’t delegate enough responsibility to others.”

The loss hit hard. Bush’s marriage to Columba hit a rocky patch, and during a period of searching, he converted to Catholicism.

Jeb regrouped, ran again in 1998, and won. Over the next eight years, he would become a popular two-term governor of Florida. But the 43rd president would overshadow him and redefine the family fault lines—between W. and his father and between W. and Jeb. In the infamous 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore, some in Bush 43’s camp blamed Jeb for failing to nail down Florida. Says the former White House official: “We all went rolling into Florida during the recount, and Jeb was giving everybody the brush-off, and ‘Back off,’ and ‘It’s fine.’ But it wasn’t fine.”

In the next eight years, George W. Bush’s transformation into a war president, and his invasion of Iraq, would blot out his father’s legacy. It would also inflict collateral damage on Jeb: As Jacob Weisberg wrote, Jeb’s older brother “had raced ahead and blown up the bridge behind him.”

Why didn’t Jeb Bush run for president in 2012?

In a Republican field as weak as any in the past 30 years, Bush might have easily mopped the floor with Mitt Romney.

But Jeb had virtually disappeared after he left office in 2007, studiously avoiding the national press. His first order of business was filling his coffers. He signed on as a consultant to Lehman Brothers. After Lehman’s collapse in 2008, he joined Barclays, which led to a lot of golf games with bankers in New York. Along the way, he trimmed down his weight, consulted continuously with donors and political consultants, and prepared himself for … what?

Friends and former advisers say Bush was torn over whether to run for Senate in Florida in 2010. He opted instead to support Marco Rubio for the seat. As 2012 approached, he seriously mulled the presidency. Donors and former aides urged him to consider. He was again torn. People close to Bush describe several factors that dissuaded him, including a desire to make more money. But the major reason was the unwillingness, or inability, of his wife to be a political partner. Columba Bush, long and awkward presence in the Bush family, speaks English haltingly and has rarely joined her husband on political stages. When Jeb became governor, she spent less time in the capital of Tallahassee than she did in their home near Miami, where the family, including Jeb, all spoke Spanish. Signs of trouble first emerged in 1999 when she went on a five-day Parisian shopping trip and bought $19,000 worth of clothes and jewelry and tried declaring only $500 at Customs (to hide the expenditures from her husband, she said). After the ensuing media debacle, she was kept out of sight. “My wife is not a public person,” Bush said at the time. “She is uncomfortable with the limelight, which is why I love her. I don’t want a political wife—I want someone who when I get home I can have a normal life with.”

But things were far from normal. In 2002, their daughter Noelle, then 24, was arrested for prescription fraud—the first of a series of problems that would continue beyond Jeb’s governorship. “The Noelle issue has taken an incredible toll on both of them,” says a friend in Florida.

But then there was the obvious: People simply weren’t prepared for another Bush in the White House. As Jeb negotiated the right wing of his party in a primary circus, the media hot lamps of a presidential race would be trained on his ailing father, his reclusive brother, his own troubled family. No matter the weakness in the Republican field; it would take more time for the House of Bush to get back in order.


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