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Gubernatorial Debate

Bush's performance is mother-approved

Barbara Bush watches her son Jeb in Tuesday night's debate from the front row. [Times photo]


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 1998

The familiar face nodded approval over and over again Tuesday night. An adoring smile and the neatly coiffed white hair made it easy to spot Barbara Bush, America's most famous mother, in a front-row seat where she watched a spirited debate between the men who want to become Florida's next governor.

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Jeb Bush nodded and arched his eyebrows at his mother, who drew a standing ovation from the audience for her surprise appearance Tuesday night at the Mahaffey Theater.

"He was the best," Barbara Bush told a reporter as the debate ended.

"You were great," she told her youngest son seconds later.

"I've never been so proud of my son," said Mrs. Bush, 73. "I feel Jeb has a vision. I always wondered what all the vision thing was, but I think Jeb has a vision for Florida."

Throughout the debate, Mrs. Bush was rapt as Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay questioned her son's lack of government experience and his business dealings.

Sometimes she clasped her hands beneath her chin, almost prayerfully, as she listened to the answers. Occasionally she fingered her trademark multiple strand of pearls.

"No matter how many times you sit through this, it's nerve-wracking," she said later. "But Jeb gave good answers. He doesn't need notes, he knows what he is going to say."

Mrs. Bush questioned MacKay's repeated accusations that her son lacks experience, noting that Bush has been Florida's secretary of commerce and a "very successful and honest businessman."

Tuesday was not the first time Barbara Bush's fame has been apparent as she helped a son campaign.

When another son, George W. Bush, was campaigning for governor of Texas four years ago, he frequently faced audiences that gave his mother much more applause than he and his father, former President George Bush, received.

At one such event, the future Texas governor noted that his mother was still telling him what to do. A guy in a big cowboy hat near the back of the room yelled, "You better be listening, boy."

Jeb Bush frequently mentions his mother in campaign speeches, saying each time he is tempted to brag about his own accomplishments, he looks up and sees the image of Barbara Bush telling him "no" the second he opens his mouth.

Mrs. Bush said she gave her son no last minute advice Tuesday, because she didn't want to make him nervous.

She shared the front row with Jeb Bush's wife, Columba; his children Noelle and Jeb Jr.; and Jeb's sister Doro Koch and his older brother, Neil. President Bush's sister, Nancy Ellis, was the only other family member there.

On Election Night, Mrs. Bush said, she and her husband will await returns in Houston rather than with either Jeb or George W., who is seeking re-election. She says the parents don't want to play favorites between their boys.

"They are both going to win," she added. "But the people who should be with them are those who have worked so hard to get them elected."

If she's right, she does plan to attend both inaugurations, as Texas and Florida hold their ceremonies on different days.

"I can wear the same clothes," Mrs. Bush joked.


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