Bush Spouse Backs Jeb but Is Wary of Political Life

By Patrick Healy; Sheryl Gay Stolberg | International New York Times, February 23, 2015 | Go to article overview

Bush Spouse Backs Jeb but Is Wary of Political Life


Patrick Healy; Sheryl Gay Stolberg, International New York Times


Born in Mexico, Columba Bush married into a famously political American family and has always been an outsider. But she may be more ready now to bear it if her husband seeks the presidency. Born in Mexico, Columba Bush married into a famously political American family and has always been an outsider. But she may be more ready now to bear it if her husband seeks the presidency.

For 20 years, Columba Bush anticipated the day she would have to answer one big question: Would she support her husband, Jeb Bush, if he decided to run for president?

Last summer and fall, as she wrestled with whether to say yes, her sense of duty was mixed with dread.

Born in Mexico, she had married into a famously political American family and had always been an outsider: a prayerful Roman Catholic, a sensitive loner and lover of the arts who still speaks in heavily accented English. As Florida's first lady, she had arranged Mass in the governor's mansion and endured weeks of bad press for a European shopping spree. She blamed politics for friction in her marriage and as a factor in her daughter's drug addiction. A run for the White House would expose her to the spotlight as never before.

"She knows the good and the bad of being around politics," said Jim Towey, an official in the administration of President George W. Bush, Jeb's brother, and a close friend to both Jeb and Columba. "It's opened the door to extraordinary experiences for her. But she's paid quite a price, as well."

Over Thanksgiving, during a family vacation in Mexico, friends say, Mrs. Bush gave her approval -- though not before winning her husband's promise to spend some time every week with her and their children and grandchildren. A few weeks later, over salads by the bubbling fountain in the courtyard of the Biltmore Hotel here, she signaled her acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, to a friend, Bart Hudson, describing her husband with her highest form of praise. "You know," Mr. Hudson recalled her saying of Jeb Bush, "he is an artist, and he is very good."

Now, there is a new question confronting Mrs. Bush: What kind of candidate's wife will she be? In a party looking to soften its image and expand its tent, the prospect of the nation's first Latina first lady could be a powerful draw for Hispanic voters disenchanted with many Republicans' hard-line stance on immigration. But Mrs. Bush, 61, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has never been an eager campaigner.

"Jeb is a natural-born politician, but I'm not a political person," she told The Miami Herald in January 1989, shortly before her father-in-law, George H.W. Bush, became president. "At home, we're a common, ordinary couple."

That search for ordinariness has been in conflict with her husband's yearning for something bigger and the expectations long placed on both of them. Mrs. Bush has struggled to make peace with her husband's world, but she is the furthest thing from a classic political spouse. If the 2016 election comes down to a choice between Mr. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, she and Bill Clinton would present a startling contrast.

Columba Garnica Gallo -- known to her friends as Colu, pronounced Coo-loo -- was a restless 17-year-old who wanted to explore life beyond Leon, her bustling hometown, when she met Mr. Bush, an exchange student and academic underachiever from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1971.

Little is known about her parents; Mrs. Bush rarely grants interviews and has mostly talked about her mother's faith and perseverance. But her father, according to some reports, was a migrant worker. They divorced when Mrs. Bush was young, and her mother now lives in Miami. Her father abandoned the family when she was a teenager, according to Mr. Bush's aides, and she did not have a relationship with him after that.

By all accounts, meeting Columba made Jeb more diligent: When he returned to school, he earned better grades and went on to the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in less than three years. …

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