No tengo futuro, Jeb Bush told Spanish-language reporters last December. Word that Floridas popular two-term governor sees himself as having no political future is hardly surprising. Jeb may be the smart one, the one whos deeply curious and involved with the mechanics of government, the one whose poll ratings as he leaves office show that 57 percent of Floridians believe he was a good, even a great, governor. But hes also a Bush, and whatever advantages that patrimony may have given him throughout most of his life, its a huge political liability now. True, just maybe his older brother will miraculously deliver peace with honor in the next few months. But I think not.
So, is there any reason to read Jeb, S. V. Dtes 370-page profile of the man he warns will become Americas Next Bush? Well, maybe if you closely follow Florida politics, and since 2000 we all know just how important Florida politics can be for the rest of us. And maybe if you believe, as the books dust jacket assures us, that John McCain has discussed running Jeb as his vice president in 2008, or the recent reports that Mitt Romney wants to do the same. Finally, if youre a policy wonk looking to study how ideas like school vouchers, standardized testing, and privatization play out in the real world, this book will provide many examples. For however wrongheaded many of his policies may have been, Jeb Bush was an active and innovative governor of a bellwether state.
But that still leaves us with the problem of the unreliable narrator. Before I picked up this book, my opinions about Jeb Bush were hardly favorable. In the 1998 Florida gubernatorial race he defeated the thinking mans choice, Democrat Buddy MacKaya man I once worked for in the 1980s while he was in Congress and whom I still hold in high regard. After years of later working as a reporter and editor for the states leading business and public affairs magazine, Florida Trend (owned by the liberal St. Petersburg Times), I also saw Jeb as wrong on many issues. And of course, like most Americans of all political stripes, Im fed up and angry these days with all things Bush. But as I set this book down, I found myself not persuaded by Dtes claim that Jeb is a potential dictator poised and ready to enslave America.
Dte, who covered and clashed with Bush for seven years as a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, makes no pretext of neutrality. Thats okay by me. Its his book, and theres plenty about Jeb Bush and his policies to dislike, including his disdainful treatment of the reporters seeking access to public documents. But Dte is much better at setting down facts than he is at making consistent formulations about their meaning. At one point, for example, he tells us that not only was Bush intent on favoring business and dismantling Floridas government, he also tried to run Florida like it was the Soviet Russia. Dont you hate those Communist dictators who favor business?
Still, Dte wants people to read his book, and that means he has to convince us that Bushs record and character are strong enough that he just might wind up being elected president despite his older brothers seeming ruination of the family name. The result is an imperative to build Jeb up as presidential material while also tearing him down. This, plus Dtes simple sloppiness in making his charges, leads to a series of what might be called backhanded insults, derogatory assertions that Dte formulates in such a way that the more you think about them the more you cannot help but see them as compliments.
For example, one of Dtes major themes is that Jeb is dangerously arrogant. Indeed, according to Dte, the enormity of his ego is such that he doesnt let himself get pushed around by campaign contributors. Jeb personally does not go out of his way to reward political donors with contracts or anything else, Dte tells us, because he truly believes he is doing us all a favor by serving as our leader. Gee, does that mean Jebs an honest politician?
Dte is eager to rehash all the familiar allegations about Bushs days as a Miami businessmanthat he hung out with shady characters, traded on his family name, and in general was out to make a quick buck, sometimes at the taxpayers expense. But the more Dte gets into the details, the more he inadvertently paints a picture of an ambitious young man who built a modest fortune (his net worth was at one time $2.04 million, since shrunk to $1.4 million) in South Floridas generally corrupt, fly-by-night business culture without committing any demonstrable crime or even shaving many corners.
Yes, as Dte documents, Jebs deal flow was improved by people seeking access to his family. Yes, he rubbed shoulders with people he shouldnt have, like Miguel Recarey, who reputedly once assisted in CIA attempts to kill Castro and later became a fugitive after his HMO collapsed. But this was Miami in the 1980swith its runaway S&L presidents and Brickell Avenue bankers and lawyers all prospering, directly or indirectly, from recirculated drug money and Latin American flight capital. That young Jeb didnt wind up with worse friends than he did suggests he had at least some shred of shrewdness and morality. And as Dte himself concedes, you have only to look at the failed business careers of Neil Bush and George W. to see that family ties alone do not guarantee success in business.
Even in trying to question Jebs commitment to public life, Dte winds up complimenting him. Dte writes of Bush, If he truly wanted to be a public servant, he would be angling to run FEMA. His experience in Florida suggests he would be good at it, and God knows the nation needs someone good in that job.
If there is a smoking gun in the book, I cant find it. Bush exploited changes in the state constitution that gave him far more executive power than any previous Florida governor. This power was what allowed him to take on bold (if often, in my view, misguided) efforts at revamping Floridas education system, including a rigorous standardized testing program passed before No Child Left Behind. His enhanced constitutional powers were not enough to keep the courts from ultimately striking down his equally bold school voucher and charter school initiatives, but they were sufficient to allow Jeb to privatize many other state functions, from processing Medicaid third-party payments to collecting highway tolls and managing the state lottery. For better or for worse, Jeb Bush shook up Floridas government and many of its entrenched special interests and power centers.
All this made him a lot of enemies in the legislature. And the press had to get used to working with a strong governor who didnt have to rely much on their approval. But that doesnt make Jeb a dictator. Indeed, after years of watching Floridas elected cabinet members get captured by the special interests they regulated, Im glad Floridas governor now gets to appoint his own education secretary, for example, as well as his own comptroller and bank examiners, even if I disagree with this particular governors choices and policies. In allowing for a strong executive, Florida is simply overcoming its Confederate past and becoming like most other states.
So what is the proper measure of Jeb Bush? Despite his enhanced constitutional powers and his energetic leadership, he left most of Floridas many long-term problems worse than he found them, as I believe will become more apparent as the years go by. He presided over a booming Florida economy, fueled primarily by real estate speculation. He spent the resulting, short-term windfall revenue primarily on tax cuts while ignoring or resisting the majority of voters who backed initiatives calling for reduced classroom sizes and a well-planned, sorely needed high-speed rail network in Florida. He failed to address Floridas narrow, highly cyclical tax base; its sprawling, disaster-prone development; transportation gridlock; exceptional energy dependency; and soaring property insurance and property tax rates. Though he leaves the governorship with high poll numbers, there is plenty in his record hell have trouble defending should the fates decide that his future in politics is indeed not over. But his critics and opponents will have to do a better job than Dte has done in showing why this smart, hardworking, innovative, and charismatic politician should not be trusted with the nations future.