It is two days before Christmas, three days before the moving vans come, and two weeks before her husband’s inauguration as Florida’s governor. Columba Bush is surrounded in her rambling Pinecrest home by boxes, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents and gubernatorial aides.
In an atmosphere of controlled chaos, she accounts for much of the control, as befits a woman who has relocated 17 times since she joined the nation’s reigning political dynasty 25 years ago next month.
She has come a long way, in every sense, negotiating sometimes-bumpy terrain.
Florida’s next First Lady was Columba Garnica Gallo then, hardly more worldly at 20 than the devoutly Catholic schoolgirl she’d been when she first met John Ellis Bush.
She, an older sister and brother were being raised by a single mother in a small Mexican town called Leon, a place, she says, “with a church on every corner.”
Jeb Bush, scion of haute WASP New England-by-way-of-Texas Republicans, was an exchange student from Phillips Academy at Andover. By his own account, he has never had another serious relationship.
“Columba is the only woman I’ve ever been with,” he says. “The only woman I’ve ever loved.”
Then, her biggest concern was their 14-inch height differential. Now, she’s worried about invitations to the inaugural ball and swearing-in ceremony that still haven’t been sent, and whether the president of Mexico will attend, and about the family’s furnishings heading off in three directions: the governor’s mansion, a South Miami apartment and storage.
“It’s a nightmare,” she concedes, sighing heavily. As she often is, she’s in black, with a touch of Chanel: the linked-C logo on her headband.
Columba Bush regards the modest pile of wrapped gifts on the living room floor, under a large, gilt-framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Reina de Mexico (the Queen of Mexico).
“This is the first year without a tree,” she notes, wistfully. “And there are not too many presents because we don’t want to carry them all to Tallahassee.”
Her traditional Christmas gift to her husband — a wallet — lies somewhere among the packages, she says, just as he materializes in the room.
Bush is visibly tired and stressed, his tie hanging loosely from the unbuttoned collar of his starched white shirt. He yawns cavernously.
“Hi, Sweetie,” he says, moving toward his wife, and bending nearly double to kiss her. She stands five feet tall to his 6-foot-4, and all but disappears in his arms.
“There he is,” she chuckles, “my first serious boyfriend.”
He looks quizzical. She has been talking about how he became just that, when she was 16 and he 17.
“I didn’t know he was the guy for me,” she says, perched on the edge of a light-blue sofa, complementing the Chinese carpet that her in-laws gave them. “When you are so young, you just don’t have any sense of getting serious with anything. We dated for three years,” mostly by mail.
After more than two decades in the United States, Columba Bush still speaks with a heavy accent, but softly, almost girlishly, in a measured cadence. She listens carefully to each question, eyes locked on the questioner, pausing several seconds before answering.
“I still have all his letters,” she says. “We would write about four, five times a week. It was very romantic.”
Now the governor-elect is trying to round up volunteers for an appearance in Liberty City later that evening.
“Anybody want to come?" he asks daughter Noelle, 21, who plans to enroll at Tallahassee Community College, sons George, 22, who teaches at Homestead Senior High School, and John Ellis Jr. — called Jebby — 15, who attends boarding school in Jacksonville.
George has a date, and the others take a pass.
“OK,” says Bush, resigned, “it looks like me and five Secret Service — I mean FDLE — agents.”
It’s an ironic slip, considering the speculation about the Bush brothers’ political futures. George Bush Jr., Jeb’s older brother, is often mentioned as a presidential contender. Less often, so is Jeb.
He dismisses the suggestion with a guffaw, but seems to relish the chance to talk about his wife.
‘She tortured me’
“She was very alluring, very mysterious,” he says, smiling at the memory. “She has a beautiful voice. I was captivated.”
They met through John Schmitz, now a Miami real estate broker/developer, then one of Jeb’s Andover pals. Also an exchange student, he was dating Columba’s sister, Lucila, whom he married.
The Schmitzes now live in Coral Gables with the sisters’ 74-year-old mother, Josefina Gallo. She has been ill and frail for two years, according to Columba.
Columba, Jeb confesses, “kept me wrapped around her little finger. I just couldn’t keep her out of my thoughts. It was all-consuming. I wrote her almost every day.”
He says he went to Mexico “with no master plan, but once I met Columba [which he pronounces Coloomba] my grades never dipped below A. . . . I graduated from the university in 2 1/2 years, thanks to a newfound focus.”
During the 1973 Christmas season, he proposed, in Spanish — the language they use at home — at a Mexico City restaurant.
“She didn’t immediately say yes, which was very nice of her. I think she told me the next day. She tortured me.”
He’s not sure if he gave her a ring, but he’s certain that she gave him one.
“She gave me a peace [symbol] ring,” he says. Then, noting a reporter’s surprise, he adds: “This was the ’70s, girl!”
They married, simply, in a chapel at the University of Texas in Austin, where Bush earned his bachelor of arts degree in Latin American studies.
“I wanted to get married; I’m not into the social stuff,” says Bush, explaining the lack of pomp. “I wasn’t then, and I’m still not. It’s probably my anti-social tendencies.”
Indeed, it’s not unusual for visitors to find him padding around the house barefoot, with his ever-stylish wife — a Bal Harbour Shops regular — in high heels.
From Austin, the couple followed Jeb’s banking career to Houston, then Venezuela, then back to Houston.
While campaigning for his father in 1979, Jeb met South Florida builder Armando Codina, who lured Bush to Miami and became his business partner. He served for more than a year as commerce secretary in the administration of Gov. Bob Martinez.
The Codina Group made Jeb Bush a wealthy man, yet the house in Pinecrest is anything but grandiose.
“With three kids, three cats and a dog,” a rambunctious Labrador named Marvin, “you can’t have a very elegant house,” says Columba.
It’s actually two cats. B.B., Columba’s beloved bluepoint Siamese, vanished recently.
B.B. exists now only in an intriguing, almost surreal portrait of Columba painted eight years ago by Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez.
The Siamese nestles in the lap of her lace dress. Red carnations festoon her hair. A medallion of The Virgin of San Juan hangs around her neck. There’s a “J,” for Jeb, on her sleeve.
In colonial Mexico, Mexican girls would have portraits done, featuring their favorite things, before entering convents.
Other items hint that this isn’t just another suburban household: Bush family heirlooms including Barbara Bush’s childhood toy chest; an upholstered rocker that Abraham Lincoln is said to have used; framed oils from Jeb Bush’s grandmother; presidential-seal objets; and photos of President George Bush with each of the grandchildren he once so famously called “the little brown ones.”
Growing up without a father
When Columba first joined the family, she was terribly shy, and spoke little English. Her background couldn’t have been more different from Jeb’s.
Her father abandoned the family when Columba was 3. Josefina Gallo moved her children into one of several houses that her father owned in Leon.
Columba recalls it as a “very painful time, but because of the love of my mother, we could not feel that loss so powerfully. And because of living in that close neighborhood, we felt protected. To tell you the truth . . . I really didn’t miss his presence that much. Mainly what I missed most from my father: He never provided an education.”
And though her father surfaced in the tabloids during George Bush’s 1988 campaign, Columba Bush hasn’t seen him since her parents divorced in 1963.
“He gave custody to my mother and disappeared. That’s a very good lesson in life, with your children and other people: Who are they going to become in the future? I’m sure he regrets a lot what he did. It’s very sad that he did not care for us and there is not that connection.”
But her mother was an inspiration.
“She was very independent. I’ve been keeping that all my life. In politics you need to be independent, to be able to travel by yourself and to be in almost any kind of different situation and try to handle that. You have to be strong no matter what the circumstances.”
Over the years, Columba Bush has worked through her shyness, in part because of politics, in part because of high-profile charity work.
She is active in Informed Families of Dade County, a drug-abuse education group, and has raised money for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico for years.
She has never danced, she laments, “but it’s never too late to start! I would love to paint and dance and write.”
What would she write?
“A romantic story! Why not?”
Jeb’s tutor in tolerance
Miami lawyer Ronald Krongold has known the Bushes since 1983. Krongold, then national chairman for the Israel Bonds campaign, invited them on a trip to Israel. They’ve been close ever since.
The Columba of those years was “sophisticated and quiet,” says Krongold. Deeply religious, she “was in awe [visiting] the foundation of her religion.”
He says he has seen her “grow into his political aspirations and become more of a partner. She has the intellect and basic wholesomeness to have gone the right way with that, rather than become difficult.”
Krongold, who helped run Bush’s victorious 1998 campaign, expects that Columba Bush will continue to be an asset through her husband’s term.
And whatever follows.
He predicts that like Barbara Bush, “she will be a strong force in their marriage. His political aspirations will go way beyond this. She’s already given him a background in the Latin culture. They live it.”
Columba Bush, until now a mere blip on the political radar, says that her greatest motivation to change “was my obligation to do the best I can with my life.”
She is asked how she has changed Jeb Bush. She says she has made him more tolerant.
“I think that comes naturally to somebody who is married to somebody from another culture,” she says.
“She has made me more sensitive to the fact that there exists prejudice in the world. She and my kids have experienced it, to some degree or other.”
Jeb Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign and his narrow loss in the election tested the family almost to its limits. Both Bushes admit that Jeb became so consumed by the campaign that he unplugged from his wife and kids.
One of the children acted out by using drugs but is now in recovery, the couple acknowledges. They don’t want that child publicly identified.
“It’s such a difficult thing,” Columba says. “You don’t know what to do, and that’s why organizations like Informed Families are so important.”
She speaks to PTAs and parent support groups now.
“She’s so sincere about this topic because of the experience she has had,” says Peggy Sapp, the organization’s president.
Jeb Bush says he got the message.
“I learned to practice what people say all the time, but many times are just empty words: Putting family first. You have to. I think I’m a better dad now.”
In the aftermath of his loss, he also converted to Catholicism.
Noelle confirms that “the campaign was fun this time. I enjoyed seeing my dad a lot more,” sometimes accompanying him on the campaign trail.
He says that his campaign staff “loved it” when his wife and daughter went on the road.
“I was a much nicer person. When I’m with my girls here, it takes the edge off.”
Columba Bush knows that “politics is Jeb’s life, his passion, his everything, and I think you need that kind of motivation to be a good politician. What happened is that he devoted himself so much, so intensely . . . that I think he didn’t even realize that he didn’t spend that family time, to go on vacation, to go to the beach, to have dinner.
“I always understood it . . . but the problem was with the family, because it’s hard for kids to understand.”
Especially the older two. Jebby “was born into it,” she says. For him as for herself, the political life is “a process,” rather than a series of discrete events.
“It’s like growing up. You start from the beginning and it takes years to get there, so it is not really shocking. ... It has been many years with a lot of work and sacrifices and learning. It wasn’t like you wake up one morning and say, ‘Wow!’”
Except if you are George P. Bush, the governor-elect’s older son, in his late teens when his father first ran for office.
“The actual victory took several weeks to absorb, and I’m sure the same thing will happen once he officially becomes governor,” says George, who has dark hair, dark eyes, and a diamond stud in each ear.
Like his father, George P. eschewed the traditional Bush family Ivy League track. A Rice University graduate, he teaches world history to “tech prep” students at Homestead. He also has tutored “impoverished youth in the inner city. ... I went to a prestigious high school [Gulliver Academy] and lived a sheltered kind of life. In college, I was awakened to a lot of injustices.”
“Georgie,” as his mother calls him, also began “discovering my other side” at Rice, meaning her Hispanic roots.
He admires her tremendously.
“Her strength and determination despite huge obstacles — coming to a new country and being thrown into a situation where she is a member of one of the most influential families — it must have been incredibly difficult for her. I look to what she overcame as an inspiration.”
‘Go with the flow’
Here is what Jeb Bush says he will need most from his wife over the next four years: “Patience ... I will expend every ounce of my energy to serve, and that puts strains on family life if there isn’t a high degree of understanding. The exciting thing is that we can now organize our lives around these things, and she can be part of them. I actually think we’ll be spending more time together now than we have for the last five or six years.”
Then there’s the mansion's staff of nine.
“You have people to take care of you!” he marvels.
Columba says she is facing the next four years the same way she has dealt with so much since becoming a Bush.
“I always go with the flow, and it works. When family time happens, it’s wonderful.”
She grows pensive.
“I think in life, most of the things are not under our control. My life has been like that. ... I try to enjoy whatever comes into my life.”