Jeb Bush, and Dying With Indignity

Another Florida Jeb reflects on the Bush presidency that wasn't

Jeb Bush, pictured here on New Hampshire primary night in February, has since dropped out of the 2016 presidential race. Credit: Steven Senne/AP

I remember sitting on a barstool in a Florida dive down the road from my college — where the drinks were cheap and nuclear and the bartender casually racist — watching the 2000 recount unfold with increasing certainty that things were about to become very bad, and realizing that Jeb Bush was going to be in my life forever. His brother would be president, and he, the preferred son all along, would wait in the wings. This was just the way it had been since 1994 and how it would be for the both of us, from now on.

Now it's over. The Other Jeb will collect seven figures a year running some crooked charter school foundation. As the years pile on, his time as governor will become distant and venerated; even this abysmal 2016 campaign will get rehabilitated. It's starting already

In the meantime, as people joke that maybe he was the stupid brother all along, as I want to rise to a defense of all that is sane, I keep forcing myself to resist the mild temptation to feel any sympathy. Deep down, I know he'd do the same for me.

We met in high school, when my name stopped being itself and started existing publicly as Oh You Mean Like Jeb Bush? In the eyes of strangers, we were a pair. (I later interviewed two other Jebs who had the same experience.) There my name was: coming out of radios and TVs, splashed on the front page of the paper nearly every day. One day in summer 1994, friends turned my front yard into a cemetery of stolen Jeb! signs, poking up out of the lawn all eerily askew in the dark. Who the hell was this guy colonizing my life and planting a flag in my damn land?

Before Jeb dropped out of this election, Trump liked to claim Jeb was too much of a coward to put his last name on his signs. It was all bullshit. Jeb ran as Jeb! from the start of the 1994 Florida gubernatorial campaign. He was always Jeb!

And anyway, why wouldn't he just be Jeb? It made sense. For as much as adding "Bush" in 1994 would've suggested coasting on the name of the father who'd left the White House barely 12 months before, omitting it also showed the willingness to risk losing a little name recognition in a conservative state. It seemed like an act of self-definition — a choice, then, instead of branding habit. Pretty soon, you knew exactly who the sign was about. 

Still, though he was probably too ignorant to know it, Trump's badgering hit on something that hearkened back to 1994. 

Florida's Democratic incumbent governor, Lawton Chiles, was down in the polls, and his campaign turned to hammering Jeb with claims that he supported dismantling Social Security and Medicare. When it doubt, terrify the grayhairs.

One week before the election, Lawton and Jeb faced off in a final debate. Jeb presented himself as a young man with fresh alternatives to the old liberal bromides and challenged the Chiles campaign's distortions, which led to this now-famous Lawton rebuttal:

I wanna call attention to this old liberal liar... Lemme tell ya one other thing about the old liberal: the old he-coon walks just before the light of day.

In a time Before Internet Culture, the line came close to a meme: It even pierced the colossal indifference of high school culture. Kids in my classes worked it into bad jokes, the words gettin' slower 'n' drawlier as the week ground on, until Lawton's quote transmuted into, "The ole he-cooooon always walks a'fore the lahhht'a day."

Even if we didn't understand, the right audience did. 

"Walkin' Lawton" had gotten his nickname from a 1970 U.S. Senate campaign stunt, walking over 1,000 miles from Pensacola to Key West, meeting folks on the road. He'd probably ambled down the same road you later barreled through on the way to MTV Spring Break at Club La Vela. He was local, humble. And Jeb Bush, conveniently insta-made Miami real-estate developer, was not. 

Call it talkin' cracker, but the old he-coon knew to walk before sunup, after the trappers and dogs have retired. He walked when the city boys didn't think to look for him: up in the polls, a week to go, not shoring up the cracker vote in the panhandle and in the mid-state pastureland — counties that no Democrat has won since. Lawton hit Jeb with that line, and it was over.

Watching Trump bully Jeb in this year's race was like watching a reboot of an old story with a repellently overdone budget. As much as tying Jeb to his brother exposed a continuum between the two on disastrous foreign policy, Trump also reinforced the notion that Jeb isn't one of anybody. Trump wasn't just illustrating a gulf between establishment and insurgency, but, in one of those curious paradoxes of the celebrity billionaire's campaign, the essential human gap between aristocracy and everyone else.

Lawton Chiles kept it local and confined to folksy language. For Donald Trump, repeatedly humiliating Jeb for being the son and brother of presidents (and also somehow worse than both) made him sound like someone so distant from actual people that he must have come from another planet. Jeb wasn't just an alien: He wasn't even one of the good ones.

It didn't hurt that Florida's public campaign finance system helped Lawton outspend Jeb in the last couple weeks of 1994, which is why Jeb '98 and Jeb '02 dumped a brick of money on the state of Florida like an ACME shipping pallet parachuting onto Wile E. Coyote. He won both times, and, as is the case with most conservative victories in nearly balanced states, Jeb had help.

In 1998, citing chronic absenteeism, the Florida Democratic Party ousted Willie Logan from the House speaker-designate role, thwarting his ambition to become the first African-American speaker in state history. Logan responded by endorsing Jeb, torpedoing the easy narrative from 1994 that Jeb had nothing to say to Florida's black community. Combined with strong Hispanic support, stoked by Jeb's frequent use of Spanish and his wife Columba's appearing on the stump, he sailed into office with an 11 percent margin.

In 2002, things were even more stacked. Jeb's idiot brother's encore tours through the state proved far more convincing than his previous star turn, reading The Pet Goat at Emma Brooker Elementary, three miles from where I was sleeping off a hangover and 1,100 miles from where 3,000 Americans were being kept safe to death in two burning towers. The Democrats ran the forgettable Bill McBride, a big-money lawyer married to a bank executive who went on to become Florida's chief financial officer. Anyone today who can remember his platform outside of the safe topics of good public schools and rolling back abortion restrictions was probably paid by the campaign. 

At the same time, Jeb had learned his lessons from 1994. Just by sticking around for 1998, he managed to kick off Lawton's carpetbagger hits. He won people over by downplaying technocratic Heritage Foundation-speak and tacking rhetorically toward the center with the compassionate conservatism concealer his brother would later spread over the country like a Mary Kay lady with a trowel. He still verbally tied himself in knots with the Bush family "Words... Hard... Syndrome" and had a stage presence hovering around Advanced Toadstool, but he won.

The problem with two well funded, high-name-recognition cakewalks 17 and 13 years in the past — on top of two terms with a pet legislature — is that rust starts to grow on even your fine points while the weak spots in your hull go unattended. When Jeb's 2015 rollout came around, the man looked like someone who'd just been rolled out of bed by someone unfriendly to him.

Two years before his campaign launch, Jeb published a book going back on his years of relatively pro-immigrant policies. At a time when the RNC's 2012 autopsy was calling for more Hispanic outreach, the guy with a Mexican wife and a bilingual family who had only recently supported the Dream Act suddenly decided to play hardliner. 

Even if he correctly anticipated the anxieties of the 2016 campaign, he completely misread its tone and exposed himself to charges of flip-flopping. Worse, as he tried to compete with immigration hardliners like his own Judas little shit Marco Rubio, Jeb pushed for the reasonable nativist tack, trying to cram the screaming panic of a policy of unreason into a dignified posture. Everyone else on the debate stage showed up dressed like Heath Ledger's Joker, and Jeb showed up looking like Cesar Romero's.

It was a campaign not so much beset by as founded on unforced errors. Responding to a mass shooting with "stuff happens" was stupid, even if the full context was better. Suggesting Americans just needed to work longer hours sounded like applying a medieval bleeding cure to someone with multiple stab wounds. Wrapping up money donors for months, even after other candidates declared, ceded the topical ground to them. But if you wanted an augury for the campaign, you could go all the way back to Jeb's foreign policy launch in Chicago in February 2015.

Jeb hit every George-era stereotype, from rhetoric down to his own counsel. All but one of his foreign policy advisors was a George I or George II retread. He championed the role of free markets and democracy in liberating countries by example, then turned around without a shred of irony and praised Egypt's military autocracy. Along the way, he fumbled a defense of invasive NSA policies and called for enough saber rattling to put America on a pre-war footing with roughly two billion people. Still, details be damned, he insisted that he was his own man.

Then it took him four tries before he could correctly declare that he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. It was only the single most obvious question that his campaign would be asked. It was only the single biggest foreign policy test of our lifetimes — one almost every Beltway vampire and explainer-journalist brand pimp failed — and Jeb failed it a few more times, for kicks.

After the rust and the gaffes and the embrace of his brother's policies, Trump twisting him into a stumbling wreck in the debates might have been unnecessary. Jeb was a giant kickball taped to the top of a tee at a little league game, an unmissable target that virtually every circumstance had ensured could not get out of the way. Donald Trump was merely the first person to realize he'd be awarded a base if he just picked up a fungo bat and hit the shit out of him.

Still, somehow, all this seems unfair.

Even to his rivals, Jeb is still known admiringly as the Hurricane Governor, and that means a lot here. The nightmare of anticipating, weathering and then managing the aftermath of a hurricane can stretch on for a dozen days, even for prepared homeowners. With everything else to worry about, it's nice knowing someone with a brain is at the tiller.

Nine hurricanes and a handful of tropical storms slammed into Florida during Jeb's tenure. Over a 44-day period in 2004, four major hurricanes hit the state. I watched a neighbor's Cadillac get crushed by a tree, while storm winds lifted a six-foot metal chimney hood off a fire pit and flung it over a privacy fence 30 feet away. Charley chewed through Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. Frances was larger than the state. Ivan wiped the dunes off Navarre beach that Opal didn't claim in 1995. Over a year later, Punta Gorda was still ringed with FEMA housing.

The irony in all the breath Jeb wasted declaring that his brother "kept us safe" is that he could have gotten away with talking about himself, and no one would have faulted him. After a scare in 1999 with Hurricanes Floyd and Irene, Jeb dumped $200 million of state and federal dollars into flood-control management. He dumped $600 million into helping citizens upgrade their homes, while mandating groceries keep generators on hand. He expanded existing shelters and allowed public colleges to be used as shelters. It was an example of the good government can do when it's put to work.

People noticed. Even haters conceded that the governor got shit done and showed up at ground zero the moment the winds died down. Repeated disasters put Jeb face-to-face with average citizens across the state, but he'd learned something from Walkin' Lawton, too. His two later campaigns put him on the ground in ways that media focus and big-stage theatrics of a national campaign never can. 

It's something I saw last October, at a "tailgate" before Punta Gorda's Charlotte High School homecoming game, 11 years after Charley. Jeb didn't have to be there. Only a couple hundred people turned out — as much as anyone could expect after work on Halloween — and the significance of the location would be lost on national audiences who only know storms named Katrina. 

But Charley was Jeb's anti-Katrina, as sure a rebuke of his brother's future failure as Obama's later naming Jeb's emergency manager to the head of FEMA. It was here that Jeb had appeared after the storm had passed, here that his espousal of leaner government was tested. And despite the help from the feds, he passed. He stood with the football field as his backdrop. Ten years before, the homecoming game had been played near the anniversary of the town's being torn from the ground. 

He looked happy.

The irony of Jeb's coming into the 2016 race with the greatest national stature besides Trump was that, of all the candidates, he probably least fit it. Over the years, I'd run into people who met Jeb Bush somewhere — at a restaurant, at a college, dedicating a building opening — always doing the same thing: tilting his head down to listen to someone inevitably shorter than he was, nodding, then having an answer or waving an aide over to take down a quick note. There's a reason why he released a book of email correspondence with constituents: He was good at small stuff. 

The bullying aside, he alone of all the candidates most looked like he wished he could staple some white papers to the podium, get the hell out of there and do something. You knew who he was, and you knew what he wanted to do. It hadn't much changed. He was Jeb!, and anything else was a waste of time.

On the small stage in Punta Gorda, he ran through a stump speech without notes, ad-libbing new material that hadn't been in the recent speeches, adapting to the crowd. He was loose, genuinely funny, to the degree that politicians can be. Afterward, he moved into the crowd and exchanged hugs with old supporters, took selfies, posed for group photos and bent his head and listened again. When he picked it up, he was smiling. 

Maybe the problem wasn't with Jeb but with the fight he'd chosen, on ground too big to cover person-to-person, where remembering faces becomes nearly impossible, where every moment connecting with one human being isn't a moment connecting with a thousand via the media. 

Maybe all those attempts at virality and "authentic" moments seemed so much like Jeb crawling into the uncanny valley and staying there because a camera couldn't ask him a specific question. A camera asks for everything and gives nothing back. It can't look worried and be assured. It can't offer a problem to be solved. Maybe Jeb's smile died on his face because the thing he aimed it toward could never smile back.

The problem with trying to banish the stumblebum Jeb Bush of the 2016 campaign by remembering the accomplishments of Governor Jeb Bush — the problem of indulging in pity enough to cast back to his victories — is that I can't stop remembering at whose expense they came. I have spent 22 years of my life strangely twinned to this man, and once I start the wheels of that machine moving backward, it has to keep going, past the hurricanes, all the way to everything else.

I remember Jeb Bush letting the market take its course in the aftermath of those storms, as insurance companies refused to insure new homes against wind damage and dramatically hiked rates. I remember him embracing compassionate conservatism in 1998 because I remember how he was slammed for saying in 1994 that he'd "probably [do] nothing" for the black community. I remember Jeb responding to the pregnancy of a disabled woman who'd been raped by trying to give her fetus a legal guardian.

I remember that he brought us the Stand Your Ground law. I remember that he slashed taxes on the wealthy in a state that already has no income tax, then offset lost revenues by firing 10 percent of the government workforce and privatizing adoption services and legal aid for people on death row. I remember him intervening to reduce public revenues and then using reduced revenues to argue for accelerating the fire sale of the commons. I remember his unconstitutional school voucher program and the hard testing benchmarks for public schools: I remember his trying to create a vertically integrated private profit system out of what we used to hold as a public trust.

And, yes, I temporize briefly when I remember that everyone he shared a debate stage with was as bad or worse, eager for just a moment to believe the Beltway political relativism that elevates malignancy to respectability because it is at least not yet malevolence.

And then I remember Terri Schiavo, whose living remains were tormented in my backyard for the same remorseless cameras Jeb stood in front of, with smiles dying on his lips. I remember Jeb having no standing to file a brief on behalf of her parents — who refused to let their son-in-law pull the plug — and filing one anyway. I remember "Terri's Law" shooting through the Florida house and senate and being signed right away, granting Jeb the unconstitutional power to ignore a court order. I remember his executive order that removed Terri Schiavo from the hospice in which her husband wanted to let her die and took her to a hospital and shoved a feeding tube back down her throat.

I remember the Florida Supreme Court ruling unanimously against Jeb Bush, and his running the case up to Washington to circumvent it — first to the U.S. Supreme Court, then to the U.S. Congress. I remember the FDLE being readied to break into Terri Schiavo's room and "rescue" her from fake complaints of abuse. 

And then I remember her death and her autopsy and details of a brain deadened to all sense and pain, and a governor who did not admit a scintilla of error or doubt or even moment's horrified self-recognition — not even after warping the law and courts and constitutional governance he held so dear to allow the state to interfere so cruelly in the life of a single person.

I remember all that, and I realize that Donald Trump could have stripped Jeb Bush on the debate stage and beaten him with a rod, and it would not have been half so much as he deserved.