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Governor's tears reveal just a drop of self-pity

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001

You might have noticed that our governor, Jeb Bush, broke into tears at a meeting with black Baptists the other day.

Personally, I like having a governor who turns on the waterworks now and then, as long as he avoids blubbering like Bill Clinton, who teared up at the drop of a hat, or, say, Johnny Fontaine, the singer in The Godfather whose sobs prompted Marlon Brando to slap him and exclaim: "Be a MAN!" This was nowhere near that.

It should be noted that our governor was not crying out of remorse for some realized mistake. He did not, for example, exclaim: "Oh, no! I just realized I accidentally permitted a cement plant to be built on a pristine river!"

His tears were not prompted by a sudden change of heart on gutting the state's growth management laws. Neither did he feel sudden pangs of guilt over signing the law that says little people may no longer sue big corporations, especially when their airplane crashes.

Nor was the cause of his grief his desire to eliminate taxes on stocks, bonds and other repositories of wealth, even as the budgets of various social services and other important state activities face cuts. He was not grieving over "crowded-school vouchers," or over nursing homes.

No. The governor's weeping was because in the course of pursuing these various policies, some of his African-American staff members have been criticized or even ostracized by other African-Americans for the mere fact that they work for Bush. His voice cracking, Bush said this is happening "not because of the truth, but because of perceptions."

An aide handed him a tissue. "I'm not crying for me," Bush told her. "I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice."

The phrase "the ultimate sacrifice" seems a little strong, not unlike when Al Gore's lawyer called the 2000 election "an injustice unparalleled in history." Surely the "ultimate sacrifice" is something closer to, say, getting killed in the line of military or police duty.

Here, we are talking about getting a reasonably well-paying job on the public's dime for an administration that is busy weakening the growth laws, dismantling the university system, cutting taxes for the rich, and then being disliked for it. That is perhaps unpleasant, but not the ultimate sacrifice.

It bothers the governor -- a lot -- that most black Floridians have not embraced him. Before he became governor, he spent some time exploring African-American attitudes. He had hoped he could break down old barriers.

And why not? Look at the research, and see that many African-American voters are conservative on many issues -- morality, crime and punishment, school prayer, corporal punishment, family values. The main dividing line is on the bedrock issue of affirmative action and legal protections. Yet this was exactly where Bush took his stand. He thought he could persuade enough black voters to support his changes.

He failed. That is the singular failure of his administration to date, and he knows it. So when Bush was in tears for his staff, he also was crying for the unfairness of it all. Listen to his words -- his African-American critics are acting not because of the truth, but because of perception. It is not possible that anyone could disagree with him and be justified.

Jeb Bush is a young, vigorous, likable, enthusiastic governor. He remains popular -- the newest Mason-Dixon polls gives him a statewide approval rating of 56 percent. His personality is stronger than public dismay over any individual policy so far.

The key question for the next 20 months is whether the cumulative effect of his policies -- and occasional forays into self-pity -- reaches a critical mass that turns the tide. Remember that the governor's father, with about this much time left in his term as president, had an approval rating of 90 percent, and look what it got him.

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