The summer he was 17, Jeb Bush set out west from Texas on a long road trip that led him from the beaches of Southern California to a Nevada brothel to a casino hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas. But the future governor apparently never surfed, never solicited sex and never sat down to gamble during the two-week tour. He did, at least, stand and cheer at a Vegas performance by Elvis Presley — the sequined king himself, an indulgent man far weaker in the face of temptation than this disciplined young fan from Houston.
Thirty-two summers later, the Jeb Bush now seeking a second term as governor of Florida portrays himself as a master of more complicated temptations, a pure leader, unswayed by the polls and political winds that steer so many others in his field.
“If you truly believe that you’re making decisions based on a certain set of values, then all this stuff — ‘Whoa, whoa, someone's going to be upset,’ or ‘This is not going to be popular’ — all that stuff that everybody freaks out about becomes less significant,” the governor said in a recent interview. “What I’ve learned in my life is that all that is transitory.”
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His solution: Base decisions “on things that are a little more timeless.”
The governor has long made much of his resolve, whether drawing attention to his controversial battles to overhaul public education and end affirmative action or pronouncing, unprompted, his marital fidelity.
They can seem curious claims, these professions of righteousness. After all, Bush is no war hero, no up-by-his-bootstraps business success. He is not a politician who has proven himself on city councils, county commissions or the state Legislature.
But in the realm of diminished expectations that contemporary politics has become, Bush knows that experience in telling the truth can top a résumé. He believes that conviction matters most. And he backs his boasts by selling as a strength what his critics say is a weakness — his single-mindedness.
Against outraged but outmaneuvered opponents, Bush has often done what he said he would do. He forced through programs to establish public-school vouchers, undo affirmative action, preserve corporate tax breaks and expand tax cuts for wealthy investors.
“Jeb doesn’t have the problem of not knowing what he is,” said his loyal friend and former business mentor Armando Codina. “Jeb is not confused about what he is or where he’s going, and he’s not confused about his philosophy and his policies.”
Ron Kaufman, White House political director for former President George Bush, recalled Jeb Bush at work on his father’s 1988 presidential campaign.
“I remember thinking how terrific he was, how charming he was, how earnest he came across, how honest — all these characteristics that as a political operative you look for in a candidate,” Kaufman said. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he had what it takes.”
If older brother George W. wandered in the wilderness before finding his way to himself and the presidency, Jeb Bush, more like his linear-living father, was rarely one to take the long way home.
WESTWARD BOUND For pair of travelers, the trip is an adventure
And then there is that image of a young Jeb riding shotgun across the dusty West in a borrowed Chevrolet Impala, surfboard strapped to the roof, shooting the breeze with his traveling sidekick, childhood friend David Brollier, the two of them wistfully listening to Chicago on the eight-track.
The teenagers seemed to have caromed from one rite of passage to another, and to hear them tell it, they politely declined improper propositions along the way.
Including the Cottontail Ranch.
Brollier, now a financial consultant in Houston, recalled the day they were heading to Las Vegas from the San Francisco area. He said the Impala overheated.
“We don’t know what to do, it’s just desert. There’s no service stations anywhere. [Then,] here in the middle of nowhere is this long trailer home.
“It turned out it’s a brothel,” Brollier said, laughing. “We learned later, of course. So Jeb and I go in, and you know, we don’t know what we’re going into. We walk up and there’s kind of some stools there, with kind of a bar. And the madam or whoever is coming and says, ‘Boys, would y’all like something to drink?’
“About this time, from behind the curtains, out come girls. You know, Jeb and I kind of looked at each other and didn’t know exactly how to handle all this. Well, the girls came out and said ‘Boys, y’all interested?’ And we said, ‘No, we’re really not,’ and I remember vividly, one of them said, ‘Well, at least you can listen to the menu.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So we went back and listened to the menu and we finished our drinks and then left.”
And what was on that menu? “Their prices,” Brollier said, “what you can get.
“We came out of there giggling and laughing and, of course, got cards. The girl’s name on my card was, I remember it to this day, it was Sandi. S-A-N-D-I, the Cottontail Ranch. I still have that card in my memorabilia.”
Bush, in an interview just after he collected the endorsement of the Florida Nurses Association two weeks ago, said he could not recall details of the journey: “These are the trips I cannot remember.”
Then, at the mention of the words “Cottontail Ranch,” he blushed deeply. He laughed. He paused.
“I was waiting for him,” Bush said, laughing again, and suggesting that Brollier, at least, may have found that menu irresistible after all.
Bush quickly weaves his wife into the story.
“I think that was the trip that I went en route to see Columba. I don’t remember if I stayed [in California] and [Brollier] went on. I don’t remember the end part of it.”
Regardless, an adolescent dalliance or two would hardly debunk the Jeb legend, the image of the express-train second son countering the early wrong turns of the first-born.
“It was a road trip,” Bush said, laughing again. “What’s wrong with that?”
A CHILD OF WEST TEXAS Florida’s governor was an achiever in school
The Texas youth of the Florida governor unfolded long before anyone talked about a Bush family political dynasty.
Born in Midland in West Texas, like his older brother, Jeb moved to Houston with his family when he was 6. His father was an oil man, a successful transplant from Connecticut, soon to be heading for Congress. Jeb’s brother, George W., nearly seven years older, was often away, at boarding school, then Yale, then Harvard business school.
The Bushes were trusting parents, and Jeb, the second son, gave them no reason not to be. To hear his childhood friends tell it, Jeb was good at sports, good at school, funny, friendly, kind and thoughtful, loyal and just — and, even at an early age, focused.
“Jeb always seemed to be just a notch above the rest of us in terms of maturity and a kind of seriousness of purpose,” said David Bates, a childhood friend and teammate at the many tennis tournaments Bush played in throughout Texas as a boy.
But Bush was no square, not always a super-serious alter ego to his semi-wayward older brother — not necessarily what he has been made out to be in the family fairy tale.
“Like all kids our age in college, I know he dated,” Bates said. “I know we played cards from time to time, and I know we drank a few beers from time to time. Even though he didn’t get into the fraternity scene, he wasn’t in the monastery either.”
School is where Bush first established himself as an achiever. He entered kindergarten a year early.
Bush attended public Grady Elementary School in Houston for several years until his mother, Barbara, moved her sons to the private Kinkaid School near their neighborhood.
Bush spent afternoons playing with the children in his neighborhood near the Houston Country Club, their hobbies changing as they grew older. Playing baseball in the Bushes’ big backyard is the first thing most of Bush’s Houston friends remember — and they remember that Jeb, bigger than other children his age, was good.
Bush stayed at Kinkaid through ninth grade, then followed George W. to Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Andover, Mass. He began at Andover by repeating ninth grade, but since he had entered kindergarten in Midland at 4, the move at Andover placed him with students his age.
Bush says now that he resented Andover at the time for “the snobby attitudes they had. I was tired of the fact that they thought people where I was from were not as smart as they were.”
But he also says the school served him well — he was “learning how to learn, learning how to think. . . . It’s like mental boot camp.
“There was nothing nurturing about Andover. There was no ‘Little Johnny’s feeling bad, let’s go give him a little therapy’ or anything. It was dog eat dog. And if you didn’t cut it, tough luck.”
The Vietnam War was at its peak, as were protests against it. At Andover, tradition was giving way. Strict rules about dress and required assemblies and chapel attendance quickly became obsolete.
“We went from coats and ties to just slobs,” said former classmate Lincoln Chafee, now a Republican U.S. senator from Rhode Island. “It went fast.”
Chafee said Jeb Bush was not particularly progressive but also not actively resistant to the changes at the school. He said Jeb “seemed to get along” with other students, even if he grew up far from the aristocracy of prep-school New England.
“He could have a barbed side to some comments, but they were taken in good humor,” Chafee said. “He wasn’t afraid to be less than politically correct, I remember, to say it like it is. He was always proud of being from Texas and always stood up for it.”
Chafee also remembered Jeb Bush’s return from a senior-year work-study trip to León, Mexico. The heart of the quick-witted tennis player from Texas suddenly beat more deeply.
“He came back and was deeply in love.”
Her name was Columba Garnica Gallo, and Bush likes to tell the story of how they met.
First he recounts a centuries-old traditional Spanish courtship ritual in which, after Catholic Mass, young men and women circle a town's plaza, moving in opposite directions, seeing and being seen. Then he places himself into the tradition.
“My version of that story that’s been told thousands of times over the last six or seven centuries is that my wife was driving in a car around the town square and I was in the town square,” he said. “She looked out the back of her car. She was in the back seat and I saw her.”
LOVE AS A CATALYST ‘I mastered academics after I met my wife’
By all accounts, love changed Jeb Bush. It was the catalyst that revealed the self-discipline and decisiveness that have become his trademarks. The difference was obvious when Bush returned to Andover for his final trimester.
“I mastered academics after I met my wife,” Bush said. “I made the honor roll one trimester at Andover — it was the last one, which breaks all conventional wisdom.”
Bush, who finished in the second quarter of his high-school class, nonetheless arrived at the University of Texas in 1971 with enough credits to skip a year of course work.
He had arranged with his old Houston friends, including Brollier, to share an apartment in a high-rise just off campus in Austin.
“I was having a lot of fun, but . . . I was a little more serious” than the old friends, Bush said. “I had my wife-to-be . . . in my mind.” He added: “I didn’t date.”
One old University of Texas friend, Cathy White, remembered Jeb wearing “high-tops, wheat-colored jeans — very unstylish. I think by modern-day standards, someone would probably look at him and say, ‘There's a tech guy.’ He wasn’t at UT for the social life.”
The war in Vietnam followed Bush from Andover to UT. His mother was quoted as saying in a 1984 interview with United Press International that Bush considered filing for status as a conscientious objector. But Bush said Friday that his mother later said she was misconstrued in the article and that he never considered filing as a conscientious objector.
Bush registered for service during his freshman year, but the war was slowing and he was never called. “I got a physical,” he said. “I was prepared to serve.”
Bush’s UT studies were heavy with Spanish literature and American and Latin American politics. The only C on his transcript was in “Cultural Anthropology,” in his freshman year.
He was an athlete, too, walking on to the varsity tennis team after winning an intramural tournament. Bush remembers obeying coach Dave Snyder when Snyder told him to cut his hair and shave his mustache. If Bush did shave, it must have been after the team picture was taken.
But tennis and school were fast becoming irrelevant for Bush after his sophomore year.
“I was just interested in speeding it up — because it’s my nature, but more importantly, because of my wife,” Bush said. “I wanted to marry. I wanted to get on with it. But it is my nature. It’s been my nature for a while to be quicker, faster, to try to do things.
“I was serious as a teenager, but I was more focused after I met Columba and got goal-oriented. And being married is a big goal. I pulled the trigger on that decision long before my wife did. I think it took her a little longer to get used to me. . . . She didn’t say yes right on the spot. She said, ‘I’ll think about it.’”
Bush did not enroll for the fall semester of 1973. He worked that summer before going to Mexico to be with Columba. They had been writing letters obsessively, and Bush, 20, was eager to seal the deal.
“I just said I was going to do it,” Bush said. “I hung out with my wife. It was Mexico on $10 a day . . . $5 a day.” They lived together briefly in Mexico City, and “we traveled some. . . . That’s the time I asked my wife to marry me.”
A SMALL CEREMONY Jeb Bush was 21, bride, 19, when they married in 1974
Bush and Columba married in February 1974 in a small ceremony at the Catholic student center at the University of Texas. Bush’s parents, brothers and sister attended, along with Columba’s mother and sister and the Bushes’ housekeeper, Paula Rendon.
“Jeb was our first child to get married, and he and Columba reminded me so much of George and me,” Barbara Bush wrote in her 1994 memoir. “Jeb was just 21, a year older than his father had been, and Columba was my age, 19, and they still had college to finish.
“We were not an easy family to marry into. I had found the big Bush family a little overwhelming 29 years before, so I could imagine Colu’s feelings! To complicate things, she spoke very little English then, although she became fluent very quickly.”
Bush graduated Phi Beta Kappa that August with a degree in Latin American studies, effectively graduating in 2 1/2 years.
Next, he needed a job.
Bush and Columba moved back to Houston, where he accepted an entry-level job in the international division of Texas Commerce Bank. The couple settled into a house in the Larchmont neighborhood, a nice area but a few rungs below the Tanglewood area where Bush had grown up.
Because he was not a business major, Bush did not qualify for the bank’s executive training program. He spent about a year establishing a new division that would assess the bank’s risk in lending to other countries. He traveled, visiting other banks “to steal anything we could off the racks, since it was a one-man operation.”
In the process, he earned his way into the executive program.
“I hadn’t even taken an accounting class. I went to work in the training program, and this is where my Andover experience kicked in. I was a little bit better writer than most people that go to business school. The chairman of the board needed somebody to be his administrative assistant. This guy was a huge letter writer, just a great communicator, great leader.”
That was Ben Love.
“It was hard work,” Bush said. “I had a rule: I always got there before he did, and I always left after. . . . And he worked hard, so I was, like, dragging.”
Love, who had been a World War II pilot in his early 20s, liked giving responsibility to young men he felt could handle it. He had noticed Bush.
“He was somewhat different from others that I’d had in that position,” Love said, “because of his father,” who held a succession of prominent political posts during the 1970s, from ambassador to the United Nations to envoy to China to director of the CIA.
But Love and others say it was merit that drove the decision to transfer the young Bush to Venezuela, where he was to open a new bank focusing on loans to foreign oil companies.
Bush earned the promotion because he was sharp, diligent, conversant in Spanish, and intuitively understood the importance of cultivating relationships, said Marc Shapiro, a supervisor at the bank in the early 1970s.
“He had an awareness of how things get done at an early age,” Shapiro said. “At a big company, you have to touch base with a lot of people, touch base with a lot of constituencies.”
Jeb Bush moved his family to Caracas in 1977.
“It was very exciting,: Bush recalled. “It was also daunting because at that time, George [Bush and Columba’s first child] was probably 18 months old and Noelle was 3 months old. We had two kids, 15 months apart. It was a time in Venezuela where there were shortages of everything.”
Bush joined the Caracas Sports Club, a refuge for expatriates from all over the world, and he began building relationships between Texas Commerce Bank and clients in Latin America and screened potential loans.
He was a tall, good-looking Texan with connections, learning how to blend his distinctive combination of glamour, shrewdness and biculturalism to new, polished effect. But within two years, in 1979, it was time to come home.
His father, after two terms in Congress and several prominent political appointments, had decided to run for president. Jeb, whose life to that point had been a succession of impressive but fairly self-serving accomplishments, left the bank to work for his father, without a salary.
“I wasn’t motivated for politics,” Jeb Bush recalled. “I wasn’t motivated because of ideology or anything. My dad’s the greatest man I’ve ever met or will meet — I can predict that fairly confidently. It was payback time, simple as that.”
The campaign sent him to 45 states, entrusting him with immense responsibility for a young man. Then again, Bush already had established himself, over and over, as precociously ready.
Even now, Brollier, the sidekick on that teenage road trip out West, marvels at the way their parents trusted them — presuming they would do the right thing.
“I wouldn’t any more let my son do that,” Brollier said, shaking his head at the notion. “The whole world is so different. To be 17 years old and driving a car, taking off to California. . . . ”