It’s after supper, and the pack of Marlboros he started that morning is down to about half — about his limit, on most days. Leaning back against a chair in his Perrine home, barefoot, legs stretching long before him, Jeb Bush looks even younger than his 31 years.
He chides his daughter Noelle, 6, for breaking into his conversation with a reporter.
At first, the warning to stop her chatter is gentle and loving in tone. The second time he tells her, his voice is steely, his eyes hard. Noelle turns and walks out of the room silently.
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The air of boyishness and relaxation about him almost masks the assertiveness that propels Bush. It emerges most clearly, though, when he speaks — no words wasted, no charm either. Bush goes straight to the point or avoids it, with equal adroitness.
His Mexican wife, Columba, discovered Bush’s purposeful, no-nonsense character more than a decade ago, when he asked her to marry. He was 21 then and about to graduate from the University of Texas.
“He said he was about to begin his life as an adult. He was very sure about wanting to marry.”
Bush first met Columba Garnica Gallo, the daughter of a businessman and a real estate heiress in Guanajuato, when he was 18. He was a lanky, prep school student on a three-month exchange program in Mexico.
“I never thought I would marry him.... One thinks about the differences in culture and things like that,” said Columba, 30.
Bush had no such doubts: “I’m pretty definitive. I knew immediately.”
He has brought that decisive touch to the Dade Republican party he now leads, according to those savvy in party politics.
“Dade County is not by any stroke of anybody’s imagination the worst organized Republican organization, but they have had factions,” said L.E. “Tommy” Thomas, former state GOP chairman and Ronald Reagan’s state campaign chairman for the past three elections.
“Bush is smart enough and young enough, he’s got the energy and ambition, to pull all the factions together.”
Bush’s swift trajectory through the party ranks backs up Thomas’ appraisal.
He wasn’t even involved in the local GOP until three years ago, when he moved to Miami. Until last March, when he was voted into the party’s executive committee, he had never held an elective post anywhere. In the weeks between the March balloting and the April committee election, he garnered enough support to wrestle the chairmanship away from opponent Carlos Dominguez with a 125-17 vote.
In his short tenure as local party chief, he already has lured two top-name Republicans — his own father and the president’s daughter, Maureen Reagan — to attend fund-raisers in town.
“He may be a young guy, but he has a strong personality. We had several meetings, at his urging, before he was ever elected... He wanted to know everything about the job and about the party — the good things and the problems,” said Roberto Godoy, a lawyer who preceded Bush as Dade GOP chairman.
Others, like Dade Democratic chairman Richard Pettigrew, noted that Bush’s major appeal may lie primarily in the perception that he has direct links with the Reagan administration, through his father, vice president George Bush.
“There’s always a certain amount of illusion around anyone who is ‘a relative of,’” said Pettigrew, 54.
But Pettigrew, a veteran politician who has served as state senator and speaker of the Florida House, said that “illusion” may be hard to sustain in the long haul, particularly among Hispanics who comprise 57 percent of the GOP executive committee.
“A lot of people have been misled to believe that the Reagan-Bush policy is to retake Cuba and to retake Nicaragua... . There’s a misunderstanding as to how complicated the federal government is in its decision-making.
“The only advantage of prior experience is knowing better what the limits are in connection with commitments and promises that are made.”
Bush is curt in dismissing suggestions that the political clout he carries stems from being the son of this country’s vice president: “Being my father’s son doesn’t make me deserving of anything, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, either.”
He concedes that constantly being described as “Jeb Bush, son of...” annoys him somewhat.
“I’m sensitive to it... I don’t enjoy that, but I don’t let it hinder my objectives. I certainly would never let it get in the way.”
But being his father’s son is what got him involved politically.
When he started out campaigning for George Bush’s presidential drive in 1980, he said, “I’m not sure if it was (out of) love of politics or love of father. But I really grew to enjoy it. I saw 40 states out of 50. And I saw the importance of it.”
That campaign brought him to Miami and to Armando Codina, who was local Bush campaign coordinator.
The acquaintanceship matured quickly into a business relationship: In January 1981, Bush quit his job as vice president of Texas Commerce Bank in Caracas, Venezuela, for a job as executive vice president with Codina’s IntrAmerica, a downtown real estate investment management firm.
“I saw Miami in terms of business as a great opportunity for a young person to get involved and prosper. It’s not a corporate town; it’s an entrepreneurial town."
He also saw a city with enough Latins in it to please him.
At Texas, Bush majored in Latin American studies and through his relationship with Columba, his business dealings in Caracas, and his fluency in Spanish, his appreciation of things Latin matured beyond a passing interest.
Politically, he deplores “the mind set in Washington that (makes) most of our leaders look East rather than South, to Europe as most important than Latin America. In the long run,” he said, “we ought to build our good will with Latin America because that’s where we’re going to prosper in the future.
“I deal with Latins and Cuban-Americans on a daily basis and feel totally comfortable,” Bush said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”
At home, he usually speaks Spanish with Columba, but English with his children.
Although his oldest son, George, 8, and Noelle learned Spanish in Venezuela, they have lost it since moving back to the States. Six-month-old Jebbie — John Ellis Jr. — will be bilingual, both parents say.
Columba retains her Mexican citizenship. The rituals of their home life are those of an expansive Latin family. Walls and table tops are lined with family portraits. There are also a couple of framed doodles from the President, mailed by Grandpa George to his oldest grandson and namesake.
“If I’m lucky to be here when (the vice president) calls for George, then I get to talk to him, too,” Bush says.
Columba, who prefers to stay home with the children and do needlepoint, says she supports her husband’s political involvement, “because it makes him happy... . I give him encouragement, when he needs it. When he doesn’t, I let him be.”
Bush says he’s not looking at Miami and the Dade GOP chairmanship as a springboard to higher political office — for now.
“I’ve got three balls in the air right now: The county party is important to me; business is important to me — to be productive and successful at it; and the family is the most important part of all.
“I have to be in a position where I know my children and my wife are totally comfortable with a future political involvement and financially secure.
“I’ve got a while to go before I can get there.”