Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, walks through the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., April 26, 2011. (Photo: Jenn Ackerman / The New York Times)
Rumors and whispers of a late presidential bid by Jeb Bush are difficult to consider seriously -- if only because the deadlines to enter primary contests have past, the necessary money and campaign staff are not in place, and the mechanisms for a "brokered convention" do not exist. And yet some worried Republicans are evidently imagining a rescue by the former Florida governor.
Such fantasies arise from the unappetizing choices that now confront Republican voters. But if Jeb Bush were to enter the field, as he has wisely declined to do so far, the public scrutiny that has damaged the current candidates so badly would turn toward him -- and swiftly reveal an enormous deadweight of political baggage. What Florida voters once accepted (or ignored) might well horrify the national electorate today.
The first obstacle that Jeb would have to surmount is that to most Americans outside the Sunshine State, he is known only as the brother of George W. Bush, most recently named one of the two worst presidents in the past half-century by respondents to a Gallup poll -- rated just above the late Richard M. Nixon, in fact. It's a negative accomplishment that should not be "mis-underestimated," as the former president himself might say.
Only a professional politician or a right-wing pundit -- the sort of deep thinkers mulling a Jeb boomlet -- could believe that most Americans would receive the idea of another Bush presidency with any emotion except loathing. Not much would have to be said or done to remind voters of this century's catastrophic first decade, and why they might not wish to risk putting a third Bush in the Oval Office.
Leaving aside the historic burden of his family name, Jeb Bush carries a resume of dubious episodes that stretch back three decades, to his early days as a Florida real estate developer and consultant, when he told reporters that he intended to become "very wealthy."
Among the partners he encountered in that quest was one Miguel Recarey, whose International Medical Centers was accused of one of the largest Medicare swindles of all time. Before Recarey fled the country ahead of several federal indictments, Jeb had made a call on his behalf to Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler -- a Cabinet secretary serving at the pleasure of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, who was then president. Recarey paid him $75,000 for that lobbying errand, which forestalled government action to stop Recarey's skimming of millions in Medicare dollars. Although Jeb has denied that Recarey -- a mob associate -- paid him to call Heckler, both the fugitive and the former HHS secretary have since confirmed those circumstances.
Jeb soon did amass a fortune in real estate, mostly with the assistance of the Cuban-American community in South Florida. He returned the favor by seeking a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush for the late Orlando Bosch, a murderous anti-Castro militant denounced by his father's own attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, as "an unreformed terrorist" responsible for killing dozens of innocent people.
Although he never hesitates to denounce government regulation and praise the unfettered free market, Jeb didn't exactly reject the federal teat when one of his own investments went south during the savings-and-loan crisis. With an infusion of more than $4.5 million from the Treasury, Jeb and his partners managed to hold onto a downtown Miami office building in 1989 that they soon sold for $8.7 million. In other words, Bush benefited from a government "bailout."
There is much more to the Jeb saga, including his vow to sign legislation that would have awarded Florida's disputed electoral votes to his brother in November 2000 and his ill-advised attempts to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead woman whose husband and parents sued each other over whether to turn off her respirator and end her life. The public regarded interference in that sad matter by congressional leaders and other right-wing politicians as an opportunistic exploitation of tragedy -- and the Schiavo affair became a turning point leading up to the 2006 Republican midterm debacle.
What Newt, Mitt and the rest of the Republican cohort have learned is how unflattering stories that faded years ago become suddenly vivid under the campaign's glare. Unless he is truly the smarter Bush -- and ignores all this presidential daydreaming -- the same lesson awaits brother Jeb.