Jeb says farewell to governor life

Early edition

Published December 21, 2006

TALLAHASSEE – After months of avoiding any talk of his legacy, denying his lame duck status and brushing aside reporters questions about his future, the final chapter of Gov. Jeb Bush’s two-term administration came sharply to a close Thursday in his last scheduled public appearance.

Less than 24 hours before Bush and his wife Columba leave the Governor’s Mansion permanently for their new rented apartment in Coral Gables, the couple oversaw the dedication of a 734-sq. ft. library addition to the mansion built in their honor and to the formal unveiling of his gubernatorial portrait.

Bush, who will spend the Christmas and New Year’s holidays in South Florida, isn’t expected to return to Tallahassee until Jan. 2, when Charlie Crist will be sworn in as Florida’s 44th governor.

Bush has avoided nearly all talk of his post-office life until the past few days. And he told the roughly 100 supporters and staff who gathered for the 45-minute ceremony Thursday, that it wasn’t until November’s Election Day that he acknowledged to himself that it was ending.

“It has been an unbelieveable, fun job. It’s been the best job in the world,’’ Bush said as he closed his remarks. “I had one of those moments where I said, “Get over it and stop worrying about it and start thinking about what the future holds.’

“I don’t know what the future holds for me personally but I’m excited for Charlie Crist, I think he’s going to be a great governor,” he said.

For Bush, who is short on retrospection and loath for lengthy ceremony, Thursday wasn’t always comfortable. Sitting for more than 20 minutes in a blue wingback chair facing the audience , Bush pursed his lips, shifted in his chair and looked down as several speakers extolled his two terms of leadership and described the legacy he leaves behind.

He sat just outside one of two doorways off the reception area that open into the new library, which adds roughly 20-percent more public space to the 50-year-old mansion, which was admitted this year to the National Register of Historic Places. Among the guests Thursday was Mary Call Collins, the widow of the late Gov. LeRoy Collins, the mansion’s first tenants.

Thursday’s speakers said it’s only fitting that Bush, who launched a “Just Read, Florida!” literacy initiative, would leave a library behind. Aside from books about Florida and by Florida authors, the library is designed to eventually include Florida artwork. It’s $500,000 cost, which includes an adjacent outdoor 740-sq. ft. portico, was financed with private donations.

“He believes every child can learn...And there will be books in this library someday where authors will chronicle his impact,” said former Bush Chief of Staff Kathleen Shanahan, now CEO of WRS Inc. in Tampa, and a key fundraiser for the library project.

Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings noted Bush’s formal portrait, by Pensacola artist Jeff Bass, includes a bookcase filled with books, including the Bible, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Florida memoir Cross Creek, and the 1899 motivational essay A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard.

In the portrait Bush stands between a high-backed leather chair and the bookcase, which is topped with a portrait of Bush’s immediate family and a Blackberry, a wireless email device, in a nod to his proud prolific e-mail use.

Bass previously has painted Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush for the National Museum of Naval History in Pensacola, and the formal portrait of Florida Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell, whom Jeb Bush appointed to the bench.

When Bush finally stood to address the crowd, he cracked a joke about his first lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan, who left office in 2003 “for a cushy job in South Florida” as Florida Atlantic University’s president.

“That’s something I’m looking for, by the way. Jeb@Jeb.org,” he quipped, rattling off his well known e-mail address.

Bush’s comments were brief, personal and philosophical. He appeared to briefly fight back tears as he thanked his wife,  sitting in the front row, for her support.

“I think when an anthropologist looks at my life down the road when I’m a skeleton that’s dug up, they would probably have to categorize it as BC and AC. Before Columba and After Columba.

“You guys didn’t know me Before Columba, I’ll just leave it at that,” Bush said.

The governor told the crowd he would miss the mansion, its staff, and its chef Joshua Butler, “I don’t think a guy could survive (his good food) a third term.”

And he thanked his supporters, “For making it possible for me to serve,” singling out  U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Al Hoffman on the second row. The southwest Florida developer and founder of WCI Communities was instrumental in Bush’s campaign financing and he headed the committee that raised funds for the library.

“I really honestly believe we have made a difference,” Bush said. “My core belief at the end of the day is that if we can just build the field of dreams, just build the fertile ground if you will that allows people, individuals and families, to pursue their own dreams there will be more prosperity, more innovation and more good things happening than any government program ever created.

“I believe that when I got here. And I believe it just as much as a leave.”