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From the vault: The definitive early-years Jeb Bush profile

With former Gov. Jeb Bush and the issue of immigration in and out of the news as of late, there's no better time than the present to post something from the past (specifically, June 1, 1986 in The Herald's Tropic magazine).

And though its decades old, this "Family Business" profile of Bush still captures much of the man you see today. And it still captures Miami, a place where an illegal immigrant waitress can petition a scion of one of the most-powerful political families in American history.

Here it is:

By Joel Achenbach

Little Havana, a packed Cuban restaurant. The waitress has a problem. Immigration. She is not legal. She writes her phone number down on a napkin. Jeb Bush slips it into his shirt pocket. "Por Favor. Por Favor. Por Favor," she says.

Jeb nods: "Si, si, voy a tratar." Yes, I'll try.

"Recuerdes," the waitress says. Remember.

Jeb Bush is not a lawyer. He has nothing to do with immigration. He is in real estate. He leases space in buildings, to be precise. But he's Jeb Bush. Jeb . . . Bush. When you are the son of the man who flies around in Air Force Two, son of the man who is the favorite to succeed Ronald Reagan as the next leader of the most powerful nation on Earth -- when you are such a son, it is naturally assumed that you have merely to tuck a napkin in your pocket and soon a complex set of immigration questions will be taken care of.

John Ellis Bush ("JEB") cuts an unusual profile for a Miamian. By birth, he is Texan. He prepped in New Hampshire at Andover. He has a tall, square handsomeness of the type that foreigners imagine when they think of Americans. Yet he is one of the most important people in Miami's Hispanic community. He speaks Spanish with a Cuban accent. His wife is Mexican. He has converted to Catholicism. He is chairman of the county's Republican Party. Under his guidance about 1,000 new Republicans each month are registering to vote, melting the once-insoluble Democratic bloc in Dade County. The national GOP leadership has leaned on Bush to run for Congress against one of the crusty old Democratic incumbents, and, though he has refused so far, he admits it's only a matter of time.

"It's difficult sometimes to live up to the expectations of other people," Jeb says as he downs first one Cuban coffee and then another. "They think I can call up President Reagan and solve anything. They think I live the life of Prince Charles rather than my middle-class life."

The waitress brings sherry. Jeb didn't order it, but he drinks it anyway. The check comes. He is undercharged, wildly.

He says, "I don't want to be considered George Bush's son. I want to be considered Jeb Bush."

And who is that?

Who, precisely, is Jeb Bush, if not the vice president's son?

"I'm kind of a boring, straight guy."

The boring guy slings a pitch across the driveway and into the mitt of his 9-year-old, Georgie. The Bush home is in a place called Pinewood Estates, which is in a place called Perrine, deep, deep in the maw of suburbia. Young children filter from the grid of houses and overrun the street, transported by skateboards, Big Wheels, little red wagons. This is Congressional District 19. To go to Washington from here, Jeb Bush would have to beat Dante Fascell, who has been re-elected without a scare every two years since 1954.

"This is Middle America at its greatest," Jeb says of his neighborhood and whips another pitch.

Last summer, he spent 10 days weighing the pros and cons of running for Congress and came up with too many cons. For one thing, he's not rich yet. His dad made sure to get rich first, before running (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate in 1964. Jeb's no Kennedy, you won't find the Bushes in the Forbes 400 listings, even if they do summer on the Maine coast and do preppy things in boats. No, before you go to Washington you have to be "secure," as they say, or else people think you can be bought.

But it's not just money.

It's the kids.

"Beso, Jebbie, rapido," Jeb Bush says once he gets back inside the house.

Jebbie Bush, 2, a monolingual package of precocity, scampers across the room and kisses his sister Noelle on the cheek. It is time for Jebbie to go to bed. He decides instead to begin dismantling an expensive-looking glass item on the coffee table. "!Diablito!" his father says. The little devil stops.

Most voters out there in the rolling internal vastness of America are probably unaware that their vice president, a man who is not exactly what you would call ethnic, has a grandson whose first words were agua and jugo and aqui. But what can you expect. The kid's half Mexican, and when Dad's not around, which is most of the time, he is cared for by people who speak Spanish -- his mother, Columba, and the family's live-in help, Lydia. Besides, Jebbie's only 2. He can't run for Congress for another 23 years. He's got time.

And, as far as Jeb Bush is concerned, at 33 he's got time, too. "I need to take care of my family before doing anything to satisfy my ego," Jeb says of his political future. He is maddeningly unspecific on this topic. When will he run? Would he run against Fascell? Would he move to another district and take on Claude Pepper? Is he waiting for the retirement of Pepper, the oldest public official in the universe? Would he consider the mayorship of Miami?

Jeb dodges the first questions. On the last he says, "I have an orientation toward Washington."

Columba says of herself, "For me now the most important thing is the family. I'm not political."

The conversation always comes back to the children. They are the central tension in Jeb's life. He is still a relatively small fish, and already the burdens of leadership prevent him from seeing his kids as much as he would like. What happens if he goes to Washington? Jeb can only hope that it's not a zero- sum game, that you can be a good father and a good leader. The children are a fait accompli. The leadership is hardly less so: He was born to it. His grandfather Prescott was a U.S. Senator. His father has moved inexorably from a Republican Party chair in Texas toward the highest office in the land. Unwilling to abandon either an active family life or his political destiny, Jeb is stuck out on the high wire, constantly gauging his balance and his timing.

"When I was growing up, I hardly saw my dad either, but when I did see him it was really enjoyable," Jeb says.

George Bush was and is a great father, Jeb says. The Bush kids are unanimous in their praise -- adulation, even -- of the patriarch. There are pictures of him all over the house. The inauguration. Fishing trips. Meeting with the president. There are even a couple of pictures of George Bush standing in his office wearing a rubber Ronald Reagan mask. Somehow that didn't make the morning paper.

Even now that his father is the vice president, Jeb says, "He always returns my call."

Jeb Bush is an unerringly predictable person, in no way more so than his language. He doesn't speak in zingers. It's a sign of gentle breeding. It's also a sign that he doesn't trust reporters. He knows that nothing makes news like a wicked slip of the tongue. He says it has been "scientifically proven" that the press was biased against his father in the 1984 campaign. His brothers and his mother share this sense of injury.

"The trashing of George Bush is absolutely inexcusable," Barbara Bush says. "I know it must destroy those children, because it destroys me."

Jeb once called the executive editor of The Miami Herald to complain about a series of Doonesbury cartoons lampooning George Bush for putting his "manhood" in a blind trust. Jeb spits, "I don't know what I'd do if I saw Garry Trudeau."

So don't expect the Bush kids to write a Daddy Dearest.

"We're pretty conscious of not screwing up for him," Jeb says. "There's not a lot of mystery to our family. We're just pretty normal."

Normal: An interesting way to describe one of the more powerful families in the country, with a legacy of political power, a family that's gunning for a mailing address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the funny thing is -- they are pretty normal. They don't have that peculiar photo-opportunity stiffness of the Reagans. They aren't Machiavellian. They aren't megalomaniacal. They're aren't mean.

So what are they doing in politics?

Jeb Bush grew up in a society in which merit was measured in large part by prowess on the baseball field or the tennis court. Jeb measured up well on both. To this day, Jeb's athletic skills are the first thing his old friends and his siblings summon as a character reference.

"Great serve and volley player. Ground strokes weren't his strength," remembers boyhood chum David Bates, now a vice presidential assistant.

"When we played baseball in the back yard, he was about the only one who could hit the ball over the fence, into the neighbor's pool," says another friend, Rob Kerr.

Jeb, hearing a comparison to the Kennedy clan, says of the Bush brothers, "I think we could probably beat the Kennedys in touch football, we could beat them in basketball, baseball, any goddam sport they want to play."

Jeb was born in a small dusty town in West Texas called Midland, where horned toads and tumbleweeds were far more plentiful than people. It was an oil town. George Bush had taken his family to Midland to start an offshore oil drilling company called Zapata. After Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary. The business flourished. When Jeb was 6, his family moved to Houston. The new house was bigger. Though only a boy, he knew his father was not like other fathers, that something was going on. Dad wasn't around much. His mother, Jeb remembers, "ran the family."

"She had to do all the grunt work," Jeb says. If he went out on a date, "my mother would have been the one who waited up. It would've been her job."

Barbara Bush, the vice president's wife, says, that was the tradition. "George went out and made a living, a very good living, so that I could go out and get the kids to camp, get them to school. I went to more baseball games than any other living human, and I never missed a school play. And all the while George Bush wished he could be there."

There were five Bush children, four boys and a girl. A sixth child, a girl, died of leukemia as a baby. Jeb's younger brother, Neil, says the Bush kids always had to compete for attention, but there was no family favorite. Life in Houston was a long idyll of back-yard baseball games, romps in the woods. "We enjoy the competitive spirit of sport," says the youngest Bush brother, Marvin. Sometimes their father would join them for a ball game after work.

In a fight, Jeb, the number two son, would always step forward and try to conciliate. He was partial to the underdog. Childhood neighbor Kerr recalls that when the Houston Astros center fielder, Jimmy Wynn, went into a batting slump and was booed by the hometown crowd, Jeb stood up and clapped with his hands over his head. "You could always count on Jebbie to be the one to say, 'That's not right, it's not right to do that,' " remembers his college roommate, David Bates.

"He is probably the most serious of us," says Jeb's older brother, George Bush Jr.

Barbara Bush speaks adoringly of her son: "If he has a fault, he's too honest. I really mean that. He'll tell me, 'Mom, you look like you've put on some weight.' It may be true, but that's not politic."

When Jeb was in the eighth grade, his father was elected to Congress. His parents moved to Washington and left him in Houston with another family for six months. Jeb insists that he did not feel abandoned.

His mother says, "I really don't know how Jeb felt about that." But this she does know: Jeb should wait before running for Congress.

"I don't think a congressman's job is all that easy. It does mean a wife is alone a lot, with the children. I think he should wait 10 more years. But he's not going to ask me," she says.

For ninth grade, Jeb went off to prep school at Andover. The work was harder. And he had a bad attitude. His first year he finished with a 71 average out of 100 -- only two points above failure.

"I was a cynical little turd in a cynical school," he says.

The most important event of his life came when he was 17 and on a student exchange trip to Leon, Mexico. He met the beautiful daughter of a real estate salesman. Her name was Columba.

"I don't know, maybe it was just raw animal magnetism," Jeb says. "I just fell in love with her. It's just one of those indescribable things. It's only happened to me once so far. I don't know how to describe it. I can tell you the symptoms. Not being able to sleep. Not having an appetite. She was the first girl I ever felt that way about."

By the time he got to college, to the University of Texas, the Vietnam War was the single most incendiary political issue of the day -- supported in Congress by such politicians as George Bush.

"Was I for the war? Um. I don't think I was really much of either. I was probably against it, I guess. It just wasn't the most important thing in my life. I was more concerned about graduating as soon as possible."

He graduated in less than 2 1/2 years, Phi Beta Kappa, and got a job with the Texas Commerce Bank. Raised an Episcopalian, he became a Roman Catholic and married Columba. The bank assigned him to Venezuela for two years, where he polished his Spanish. He drifted rightward, he says. He seems a little stumped when asked why he became a conservative.

"I'm sure my family had something to do with it. I happen to think that the conservative side of the issue is the correct one.

"It just is."

Jeb Bush took time off in 1980 to work on his father's presidential campaign. That was when he met Armando Codina, a young Cuban developer from Miami. Codina offered Jeb a job with his company, IntrAmerica Investments, selling and developing real estate. Jeb accepted. Soon he became a partner with Codina on several developments. It's not glamor. Mostly, Jeb convinces people to lease office space. Paper work abounds. Signatures must be witnessed. It's not as much fun as politics.

Maybe that's why, in 1984, Jeb entered the family business.

George Bush's political resume begins with the chairmanship of the Republican Party of Harris County, Texas. Jeb Bush's political resume begins the same way, only the county is Dade, in Florida. Jeb ran for the top job -- "Boss," they would call it in Chicago -- in 1984. He says he wasn't intentionally following his father's path. He just likes politics. Partisan politics.

"The party system is really what makes politics tick. It's the constant that exists. Candidates come and go, but the parties are around, as organizations that are there to help elect candidates all the time. In my case, I thought it was the place where I thought I could be the most effective," Jeb says.

The party did need a healer. The old guard (read: "Anglos") disliked the county chairman, a Cuban-American whose English was less than perfect. The ultra-conservatives disliked the not- quite-so-conservatives. Those who abominated communism disliked those who merely hated it.

Jeb was the answer. Young and energetic -- he was only 31 -- but with the manners, the calmness, of a much older man. He looked preppy, spoke Spanish perfectly. A hybrid. A watershed Republican. He had a hankering, perhaps congenital, for the middle ground. And he had connections. Here was a guy the president could pick out of a crowd. Here was a guy who could go on the Spanish-language radio stations and offhandedly mention that his father was once head of the CIA.

"You couldn't have written a better formula for a party chairman," says former GOP state committeeman Mike Thompson.

Armando Codina, Jeb's business mentor and partner, remembers, "I tried to talk him out of running. "I tried to talk him out of getting involved in local politics. We have so many factions. It's a very difficult position. A good deal of the Republican Party is Hispanic. I like the things that Cubans have brought to the city of Miami -- but political maturity is not one of them."

One might choose as an example the reaction to Jeb's candidacy of rival candidate Carlos Dominguez, a real estate investor. Dominguez wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan, requesting an investigation of the Dade Republican Party for possible pro- Democrat sympathizers he claimed were trying to split the party. "I am not paranoid," Dominguez said at the time, "but I believe that Fidel Castro is behind all this."

Bush defeated Dominguez 125 votes to 17 and got a present from his dad -- the gavel used to silence arguments in Harris County, Texas, two decades earlier.

The party's internecine tensions are muted now. Meetings are crisp, efficient, one could say dull, except for the occasional fist fight. During one particularly stultifying moment at the April 28 meeting, Hialeah councilman Julio Martinez and columnist Eladio Armesto of the Spanish-language weekly newspaper Patria suddenly bolted from the room and, once in the hallway, attacked each other. The councilman quickly had Armesto pinned to the carpet. A security guard came, but Martinez insisted nothing had happened. "I tripped," he said, and dusted off his shirt. By this time, a crowd had gathered as though at a cockfight. Jeb ordered everyone back inside.

Bush is leading the transformation of Dade into a two-party county. Once upon a time Republicans were as scarce as panthers in these parts. But since Bush took over the party and began massive registration drives, the Democrats have lost 20,000 voters, and the Republicans have gained 57,000. Richard Pettigrew, Democratic chairman for Dade County, says he isn't worried, that it is only natural for the ratio to even out a little. The Democratic lead, a solid 3 1/2-to-1 in 1980, is now less than 2-to-1.

"You're looking at the reason out there," Jeb says one afternoon from the 27th floor of the new Museum Tower, a downtown Miami office building in which he has a piece of the action. "To the west and south. The growth areas of the county are increasingly Republican. The whole county is going Republican."

Still, party chairman is not an especially enviable job. Jeb has to please the old-fashioned Republican tea-and-cookies socialites as well as the exiles who want the U.S. to invade Cuba. Loyalty becomes a constant issue. Armando Codina notes, "As chairman of the Republican Party, Jeb has to operate with blinders on, and support only one candidate, the Republican candidate. I wouldn't have been able to handle it nearly as well as he has."

Jeb has managed to stay away from controversy. He did not attend the March 23 rally where some supporters of aid to the Nicaraguan contras -- supporters of Republican policy -- threw eggs and rocks at opponents. Nor has he been outspoken about the cancellation of Dolores Prida's play, Coser y Contar, because of hostility to Prida's belief that the U.S. should open diplomatic relations with Cuba.

He says he has mixed emotions about these things.

"There's a point," Bush says, "when it goes beyond freedom of speech and becomes aiding and abetting the enemy."

That is about as ideological a statement as you will get from Jeb Bush. The buffered comment, the harmless invective, seems to come to him naturally. You have to wonder what he really stands for -- what being a Bush is all about.

"That question is like, What is the Meaning of Life," Jeb says defensively when asked what he believes. "I consider myself a conservative. That label fits. An idealist. I do believe in a lot of things. But I don't think when you're involved as chairman of the Republican Party of Dade County, you should spend all your time emphasizing ideology. I think you should spend your time emphasizing electing candidates.

"Your job is to elect Republicans. You have to support Republicans no matter what."

He is uncomfortable talking at great depth about himself. He offers no insight into the broader question of why Jeb Bush has become Jeb Bush, whether it is inevitable, predetermined, the product of a predictable convergence of possibilities.

"I don't have time in my day or my life to be introspective about this stuff. I'm on four or five tracks at once. I don't have time to step back and ask, Why am I the way I am, who am I? I'm happy with the way I am."

The man is searching for an anecdote about his son. He looks downward at the floor, his brow furrowed in a way that makes him look old. He can conjure the general but not the specific. His son. What can he say? He glances at the pictures of his family on the cabinet behind his desk. He seems tired and hesitant, but perhaps he is just loose, unhurried, unbothered. His office is large but designed in a strangely modest way, absent the accoutrements of power. The windows reveal an unspectacular view of the old Executive Office Building; the small desk faces a retreating rectangular space as though he is a teacher waiting for his students to arrive. The phone buzzes once, but when he picks it up there is no one there.

"Oh, I can't think," the vice president of the United States says quietly. "Barbara, she's great on the anecdotes."

He suddenly livens up.

"Jebbie was a superb athlete. I really think he could have been a big-league athlete. He hit left-handed and he just killed the ball. But he never played baseball, he played tennis. He's a natural. Big man, but he moves."

He remembers the time Jeb hit a baseball over the back-yard fence and broke the neighbor's window. And the time Jeb got in an argument about "freedom versus communism" with a diplomat in Mexico. And the time Jeb spent an hour in a steam bath on a five-buck bet, and nearly beat up his younger brother Neil when Neil wouldn't pay up.

But beyond that -- the inner Jeb -- that's hard.

"I don't think he's -- he's a driver, he's got a drive, a determination, hard work, competitive spirit in a lot of ways; he wants to achieve, all that's churning in there. I don't think he spends a lot of time stretched out on some self-analytical couch, saying 'What is the real me', 'What is my purpose here' -- finding himself, as my father used to call it. He doesn't need to find himself. He's confident in who he is, and what he believes, and what he likes."

Did he pay enough attention to his Jeb?

"No, no, he's gotten a lot of attention from me, but never can he get enough attention from me. We're a very close family, and it came through, my being off in politics, traveling around the world, through times when other families were strained, with enormous drug problems and other kinds of problems, and I think that speaks very well of our family unity. No dropout problems. And no, you know, real crises, that that generation had, at the time of the Vietnam thing.

"I'd expect they'd say, yeah, I've been a good father."

The vice president looks at one of his family portraits. The kids are young and rangy. Everyone is smiling in the back yard.

"There," he says, "that's where the boys used to hit the ball over the fence."

Columba is abroad, and Jeb is at home taking care of the kids.

"Beso," Jeb says to little Jebbie.

Jebbie gives him a kiss.

"Beso," Jeb says and points to Noelle.

Jebbie kisses Noelle. Off to bed.

George continues to do his homework in the TV room. Last fall, little George went to the Army-Navy football game with the vice president. Georgie rode a train for the first time. He sat on the 50 yard line. He got to walk across the field to the cheers of thousands of people, and stand on top of a platform in full focus of the stadium's closed-circuit television. Georgie hammed it up. He raised his fists in the air like Bruce Springsteen. The stadium roared.

"Then he flies back to Miami," says Jeb, "and I have to tell him that he's a normal kid -- that he's not special because of who he is, that he's going to have to earn his own way. That's how we grew up, and that's how I want my kids to grow up."

If his father wins in 1988 -- no certainty, obviously, though the veep is far ahead of any projected opponent in major opinion polls -- the Jeb Bush family will grow even larger. Some new people will move in. The Secret Service.

By then he may no longer live in Pinewood Estates. There is a For Sale sign outside his house.

Where's he going?

Jeb looks a little defensive. He hesitates. "Well, I'm not moving anywhere until I get my house sold."

"Can we live in a hotel?" Noelle asks.


"Oh, Key Biscayne! Key Biscayne! Please, Dad," she says.

Georgie doesn't like this idea: "I don't want to live in no other country. I want to live in the USA."

"Key Biscayne is in the USA," Jeb says.

But seriously, why is he moving? Could it be he wants to go to . . .

"To another congressional district?" Jeb says. He smiles cagily. "Maybe on a boundary."