Jeb Bush

The paradox of candidate Jeb Bush: He seemed most comfortable in his second language

Video: Jeb Bush suspends campaign for president

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced the end of his campaign at what was supposed to be a primary night party in Columbia, South Carolina.
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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced the end of his campaign at what was supposed to be a primary night party in Columbia, South Carolina.

On what turned out to be the last full day of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, a man with a distinctively English accent stood to ask him a question.

“Can you vote?” Bush interrupted with amusement.

“I don’t think so,” the man responded. “I’ve had the privilege of reporting for the Times of London — ”

“Oh, you’re a reporter, too!” Bush cut in again. (The man was a columnist.)

And then, there in Greenville, South Carolina, Bush said something that left no doubt he was still Miami Jeb: “This is going from Guatemala to Guate-peor!”

I laughed, but few others did. Besides Bush’s wife and son, a Colombian-born voter, and another bilingual reporter present, no one else seemed to get it. From bad to worse, Bush had said — using a Spanish-language colloquialism.

Moments like this made covering Bush’s candidacy particularly endearing for a Miami reporter. When I least expected it, Bush would show flashes of his inner Hispanic — even in places where his biculture couldn’t possibly fit, in a Republican primary year dominated by a front-runner who wants Mexicans to pay for a “beautiful” border wall.

On New Hampshire radio, Bush called his wife, Columba, “mi querida.” A staple of his stump speech involved telling voters, in perfectly accented Spanish, he met her in “León, Guanajuato, Mexico.” His two granddaughters, he bragged, will someday check off “not applicable” as their ethnicity in Census forms — because they’re “Texan-Mexican-Canadian-Iraqi-Americans.”

I looked for that Bush because that’s when he appeared most energized and passionate and raw. “Claro que sí,” he said about going to a same-sex wedding. “Barbaridades,” he said of Donald Trump’s insults.

His aides scoffed at reporters who pointed out how much more comfortable Jeb Bush seemed in Spanish than in English. But Bush eventually came around to admitting it himself.

“You speak in Spanish, it comes across that you’re more animated,” he told donors in October. “Just saying the exact same thing in English — in English there’s a cultural difference.”

We’ll never know how much Jeb Bush’s ease in two cultures might have helped him in a general election. Early on, his campaign filmed him at home in Coral Gables with his family, chatting in Spanglish. But it never used the footage. Not in the year of Trump.

Bush made small inroads anyway. “Thank you for speaking Spanish,” a man told him at an October town hall in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Last month in Sioux City, Iowa, two Latino high schoolers waited for Bush for a long time after another town hall, just to get his autograph.

And in Greenville on Friday, the Colombian-American voter introduced himself to Bush.

“I’m an immigrant,” he said. “You can probably detect my accent.”

“You sound like you’re from my part of the country,” Bush responded, “where your accent doesn’t sound bad to me.”

Patricia Mazzei is the Miami Herald’s political writer. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei

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