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    Catching up with Florida's first lady

    Columba Bush has been working for education and against drug abuse. And hoping her husband runs again.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

    [Photo by Phil Coale]
    Columba Bush says she's adjusting to her role as a public figure.
    TALLAHASSEE -- Will Jeb Bush run for a second term as Florida's governor? If his wife has anything to say about it, yes.

    In a rare sit-down interview Thursday, Columba Bush told the St. Petersburg Times that she hasn't talked to her husband about whether he'll run again. But, she said, "I would like him to run again, because I think he's doing a good job."

    Bush has said he won't make a decision until this summer about running for a second term next year. In Tallahassee political circles, the buzz has been that Bush's decision will depend on whether it's the right move for his family. The couple's three children -- George P., 25; Noelle, 23; and Jeb Jr., 17 -- are living away from home.

    The Mexican-born Mrs. Bush, who prefers to speak Spanish when she's at home with her family, has had to adjust to the differences between Latin-dominated Miami and Old South-flavored Tallahassee.

    Mrs. Bush said she misses the Miami area, where they lived before moving to the capital. She said she's happy living in Tallahassee and is adjusting to her role as a public figure.

    "I've been a very private person all my life. I think everybody knows that. These last two years, I've been involved in my own issues," she said.

    Mrs. Bush, 47, has been Florida's first lady for a little more than two years, but she keeps such a low profile that few Floridians know much about her.

    Most people don't know she founded a scholarship program for children who excel in the arts, or that she spends days traveling to drug-treatment centers to talk to counselors and addicts, or that she tutors a middle school child every week in Tallahassee.

    "She's very shy, and she doesn't want to call attention to what she's doing," said Angela Martinez, who works with the first lady on the arts scholarship program.

    Says Mrs. Bush: "In the last 10 years I've had to learn to be more outgoing."

    Overall, she said, being first lady "is a balance between the good and the bad, but so far the good is better."

    The worst part of being first lady, she said, is the constant traveling.

    "I don't know how these politicians do it -- traveling all the time," she said after a public appearance this spring.

    Mrs. Bush has declined media requests for sit-down interviews since June 1999, when she was fined by U.S. Customs officials because she didn't declare $19,000 worth of clothes and jewelry she bought on a Paris shopping trip. The story made news around the world, and made Jeb and Columba Bush the butt of jokes, many of them about Columba's expensive tastes. She favors designer clothing and expensive jewelry.

    Mrs. Bush apologized at the time, saying, "The embarrassment I brought on myself made me ashamed to face my family and friends."

    She also said: "I did not ask to join a famous family. I simply wanted to marry the man I loved."

    Mrs. Bush now says the event made her media-shy.

    "Like I say, we all make mistakes," she said last week. "I just had to start doing more good things.

    [AP photo]
    After not declaring $19,000 worth of clothes and jewelry she bought in Paris, Mrs. Bush said, "The embarrassment I brought on myself made me ashamed to face my family and friends."
    "There's always going to be people criticizing him or criticizing me, but we try to focus on what's important," she said. "That's probably why I am so careful in what I do and what I say, because I know people are listening. I want to do my best."

    One of the hardest periods she said she has had as first lady was the wrenching weeks during Florida's disputed presidential election, when partisan bickering got loud and nasty. At a reception at the Governor's Mansion one night, a reporter asked an obviously weary Mrs. Bush what she thought about the week's events.

    "This," she said, her brown eyes widening, "is like The Twilight Zone."

    Mrs. Bush said she has a strategy for dealing with the stress of public life: "I laugh and I pray. Those are my big secrets. And they work. They work so far."

    Mrs. Bush acknowledges her husband's long hours -- he has been known to fire off e-mails to his staff in the middle of the night -- make it difficult for them to spend a lot of time relaxing together.

    "He loves his work, so it's very difficult to slow him down a little bit," she said.

    Do they talk about state policy?

    "Never," Mrs. Bush said. "We talk about our daughter and sons, and cats and dogs and silly things."

    Adele Graham, who was Florida's first lady from 1979 to 1987, said it is always tough to balance private and public life while living in the Governor's Mansion.

    "You have to define your privacy," Mrs. Graham said. "I think being first lady of a state is probably the best opportunity a woman can have, because it is a real opportunity to effect change. There's less scrutiny than being first lady of the country."

    Mrs. Bush calls being Florida's first lady a privilege and says she has two priority projects: working to keep kids drug-free and promoting arts education in schools. She has pursued this work quietly and out of the public eye.

    She founded a private scholarship program that awarded $1,000 each this year to 24 high school students who want to pursue a college degree in the arts.

    Megan Sapp, a 17-year-old senior at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa, was one of this year's scholarship winners. Sapp traveled to Tallahassee in March to attend a reception that Mrs. Bush hosted for scholarship winners.

    "When I saw the first lady, she was so into kids and art," Sapp said. "It was really nice to see that anyone in any kind of government authority cares about art."

    Mrs. Bush said she founded the scholarship program because "growing up in Mexico, I didn't have the opportunity to go to a good art school, and I got married too young."

    [AP photo]
    Columba Bush is surrounded during the Drug Free Youth in Town summit in Miami this month.

    She met Jeb Bush in Mexico at age 16, when he was an exchange student. She married him at 20 and had their first child at 23. She stayed home to raise them while Jeb built his career.

    She said she began raising money to support the arts, especially Mexican art, years ago, when her father-in-law, George Bush, was president. When asked whether she's concerned about cuts to art education in the public schools, Mrs. Bush demurs.

    "Never talk about politics, my dear," she says.

    That advice, she said, came from her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush.

    In February, Jeb and Columba celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary. They spent much of the day attending the Florida Drug Summit in Tallahassee. Drug-treatment counselors came from around the state.

    Jeb Bush praised his wife's efforts during a brief speech there.

    "I want to thank my wife for putting up with me for 27 years. She's awesome," Bush said, his voice breaking. "You have invited her to every nook and cranny of the state. She really cares about this issue. It's not particularly flamboyant. It's quiet and graceful, and it matters a lot."

    Mrs. Bush didn't swoop into the crowd for a quick tour. Instead, she stayed through the long day of seminars, listening. Moving through the crowd at lunch, she was approached by drug-treatment advocates who thanked her for visiting so many treatment centers and schools. She hugged many of them.

    Clearly, this is her crowd.

    Gail Honea, who works with the Community Drug and Alcohol Council in Pensacola, told the first lady: "My teachers still talk about you coming to Pensacola."

    Later, Honea described Mrs. Bush's visit last fall. She said she could tell Mrs. Bush was nervous about speaking to the large drug-free rally in Pensacola. But she said the first lady reached out to the kids assembled there.

    "She ended up telling them how much she cared about them," Honea said. "She was so sincere. She doesn't give lip-service, you know? You can tell when people are sincere."

    [Times file photo]
    Gov. Jeb Bush and Columba Bush play with their three children -- from left, George P., Noelle and Jeb Jr., in 1998. All the children now live away from home.

    At lunch at the drug summit, Mrs. Bush waited in the line with the others, and declared she was starving. Noticing her, people tried to let her cut in line, but she wouldn't. In the end, she didn't even eat the sandwich. She was seated at a head table, in front of several hundred people, and she was uncomfortable eating in front of the crowd.

    Mrs. Bush's interest in fighting drugs is rooted in personal experience. One of their three children (the Bushes won't say which one) has battled a drug problem. Talking about drug abuse can bring her near tears.

    "I know about the suffering of the families," she said.

    When she goes to treatment centers, she said, "It breaks my heart, because there are all ages, starting at 14 all the way up to 47 or whatever. I'm just there to encourage them and give them help and tell them everything is possible. It's very important for them to be encouraged."

    "When we first moved to Tallahassee, I had offers from hospitals and organizations to do this or that. My mother-in-law told me the best thing is to focus on one or two things and do the best you can do.

    "I don't spend too much time for social things, because I truly believe there are people who need me more," she said. "When I come to see people who are suffering, I want to be with them. I want to comfort them."

    Both Jeb and Columba say their marriage went through a rough patch, after his failed bid for governor in 1994. As a way to grow closer, Jeb converted to Catholicism, his wife's religion. The two now attend church together, something that Mrs. Bush says is very important to her.

    Today, their relationship remains intensely private. Periodically, they have small, private dinners with a half-dozen guests at the mansion. Unlike some other governors and first ladies, they are not visible players on the Tallahassee social scene. Mrs. Bush likes to take walks alone around a small Tallahassee park, Lake Ella. When they are not tied down with a reception at the governor's mansion, she and the governor sometimes go out for Mexican food.

    When asked, the governor and first lady talk effusively about their partnership.

    "In my case, I've never dated anybody else," Gov. Bush, 48, said on the couple's 27th anniversary. "She was my first date and my only love, so I can't compare it to anything else. I love her more than when I was 17. She gives me incredible comfort. I'm pretty hard-charging. When I get home, she's my rock. She's my comfort."

    Last week, Mrs. Bush said: "I truly love my husband. I met him 30 years ago, and I love him like the first time we met. I think he feels the same way."

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