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Jeb Bush defends brother's visit to Bob Jones University

Addressing Bob Jones University doesn't mean you buy into their values, he says. In fact, Jeb Bush says he'd speak there, too.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2000


Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday defended his older brother's controversial visit to Bob Jones University and said he also would be willing to speak at the South Carolina school, which bans interracial dating and whose founder once labeled the Catholic Church a "satanic cult."

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"I would, and I wouldn't feel that I was lending credence to a view by going to speak to different groups," Jeb Bush said in a rare network interview on NBC's Today. "I have spoken in places where people are not supportive of my views and I am not supportive of theirs, but as a public servant I think it's my responsibility and as a candidate I have done the same thing."

Through a spokesman, the Florida governor cited three examples Tuesday evening for the St. Petersburg Times: A recent public hearing in Miami on the One Florida initiative to replace existing affirmative action programs in university admissions and public contracting, a campaign visit to a Jewish synagogue in South Florida, and a campaign visit to an AFL-CIO union hall in Miami and perhaps Jacksonville.

"That is not to suggest that Gov. Bush opposes the particular synagogues or the people worshiping in those synagogues," Justin Sayfie, the governor's communications director, said. "Gov. Bush has spoken to groups of individuals whose political views did not agree with his and where his political views did not agree with theirs."

Texas Gov. George W. Bush's speech at Bob Jones University the day after he lost the New Hampshire primary to Arizona Sen. John McCain ignited a political firestorm that engulfed Bush's presidential campaign. George W. Bush spent weeks defending the visit and distancing himself from the school's reputation for racial and religious intolerance.

On Sunday, George W. Bush sought to end the controversy by releasing a letter to Cardinal John O'Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York. In the letter, he expressed regret that he had not quickly and clearly distanced himself from anti-Catholic and racially discriminatory rhetoric associated with the university.

As he has defended himself in news conferences, George W. Bush has repeatedly mentioned his brother and sister-in-law. Jeb Bush converted to Catholicism and his wife, Columba, was born in Mexico. But Tuesday's interview, which was taped Monday in Washington, was Jeb Bush's first extended comments on the controversy.

"I am offended by parts of their teachings," Jeb Bush said of Bob Jones University. "But, on the other hand, I also know that it is incumbent upon candidates for office to go speak their mind. My brother didn't go adhere to their views. He didn't say that interracial marriage is inappropriate. He didn't say anything intolerant at all."

Pressed by NBC's Jamie Gangel, Jeb Bush said his brother did not make a mistake by speaking at the school. He said George W. Bush has regretted in hindsight that he did not promptly disagree with some of the views expressed by the university's leaders.

"Remember, there's 5,000 kids there," Jeb Bush said. "These are the views of the leadership of that university. ... When I was going to the University of Texas, the president of that university was a big liberal. I didn't believe in everything he said."

Florida Democratic Party spokesman Tony Welch questioned how Jeb Bush could defend speaking before institutions such as Bob Jones University while opposing their beliefs.

"Under that justification, the governor could speak at a Klan rally, and I don't think there are many folks who would find that acceptable," Welch said.

In the television interview, Jeb Bush echoed his brother's criticism of McCain. The Arizona senator's campaign telephoned thousands of Catholic voters in Michigan, informing them of Bush's visit to Bob Jones University and of previous anti-Catholic statements made by the school's leaders.

McCain defeated George W. Bush in the Michigan primary last week.

"John McCain has been a little ugly in the last couple of weeks," Jeb Bush said. "But imagine what Al Gore is going to do."

Todd Harris, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said Tuesday that the Bush brothers' criticism is off base.

"Contrary to what the Governors Bush are saying," Harris said, "no one has ever accused George W. Bush of being an anti-Catholic bigot. But the fact is, he went to a university that espouses anti-Catholic views and stood by and said nothing. True leadership is having the courage to tell people things that they don't want to hear."

Jillian Inmon, the executive director of George W. Bush's campaign in Florida and a former aide to Jeb Bush, said NBC called her to request the interview. The Florida governor taped the interview while he was in Washington to attend meetings of the Republican Governors Association.

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