The stream of requests to the White House from Jeb Bush, a young but well-connected Republican leader in South Florida, ranged from the weighty and urgent to the parochial and mundane.
In 1985, he sent an emotional letter pressing his father, Vice President George Bush, to investigate the detention of Cuban children in Texas, asking, "Shouldn’t there be some compassion?" (The vice president’s reply: "Heartbreaking.")
In 1989, after his father became president, Bush offered his recommendation for the next Supreme Court opening. ("Your suggestion will be given thoughtful consideration," a senior aide responded.)
In 1990, Bush lobbied the White House to meet with executives of the telecommunications giant Motorola – fostering a relationship that would later aid his own political ambitions. (The chief of staff did meet with Motorola, as did President Bush.)
For the 12 years that his father held national elective office, Bush used his unique access to the highest reaches of government to seek favors for Republican allies, push his views and burnish his political profile in his home state, a review of presidential library records shows. In the process, Bush carefully constructed an elaborate and enduring network of relationships in Florida that helped lead to his election as governor in 1998 and, now, to his place as a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
It was a period when Bush, a real estate developer and entrepreneur in his late 20s and 30s, made his debut in regional politics, parlaying his family name into the chairmanship of the Dade County Republican Party and emerging as a sought-after figure for anyone trying to reach the White House.
The letters from Bush kept at the George Bush and Ronald Reagan presidential libraries show him to be sometimes compassionate, occasionally demanding and always conscious of his status as a member of a prestigious and powerful political clan. He thought nothing of making requests big and small, but acknowledged an underlying anxiety about coming off as something very un-Bush-like: an overeager local party boss, "another bad breath county chairman," as he wrote in a request to President Ronald Reagan.
Even within a family long steeped in politics, Bush stood out to White House aides for the frequency of his communications and the intensity of the opinions.
"Jeb, we all sensed, had a strong interest in a political future of his own," said John H. Sununu, who fielded a number of Bush’s inquiries during his tenure as chief of staff to the first President Bush. The son’s words, Sununu said, carried the extra weight of lineage. "We listened to him."
Bush’s activities during this period drew him closer to a father who already viewed him, fondly, as heir to the family’s political legacy. Early in his term, George Bush shared with his senior staff a withering letter that his son had written to a newspaper columnist in Orlando, Florida, holding it up as a model for the aggressive approach that should be taken in response to attacks on his administration.
"This happens to be Jeb defending his father," George Bush wrote. "But we ought to have machinery that goes into automatic when lousy editorials are written."
In the scores of messages Jeb Bush sent to his father and White House staff members, there are echoes of the themes that have dominated his career in both government and business: a fruitful reliance on his family name, a fascination with the mechanics of government and a willingness to delve into the gritty art of political favors.
Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Bush, said in a statement that "from time to time, Governor Bush of course passed along information or requests to the White House, which were routed to appropriate channels."
"There is nothing odd or inappropriate about that," she added.
Bush’s reliance on written communications presages his habits as an elected official. As governor, he was known to spend up to 30 hours a week on email and so adored his BlackBerry that he insisted on featuring the device in his official portrait. The archives at the Bush and Reagan libraries contain more than 1,200 pages of documents relating to Bush, capturing dozens of exchanges between him and the White House staff. But even that may represent just a fraction of his messages, since the archives are incomplete.
While Bush’s father welcomed his input, staff members did not always share that enthusiasm. The archives reveal polite but firm attempts to rein him in. Jane Kenny, special assistant to Bush’s father when he was vice president, twice wrote to ask Bush to route requests for appointments through her instead of contacting an agency or office directly.
"That way," Kenny wrote, "there will be no chance of misunderstanding."
Bush had run out of patience with his father’s staff. The White House had yet to officially nominate an ally, Dexter Lehtinen, as U.S. attorney for South Florida, as Bush had repeatedly recommended. His letter to C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, was blunt and emphatic.
"Boyden, it’s time to act," Bush wrote.
The case demonstrated how doggedly Bush advocated for those close to him, deploying a growing self-confidence and an increasingly assertive tone that might have invited scorn if he had had a different father. When the U.S. attorney job came open in 1988, Bush, who by then had begun his ascent in Florida politics, moving from Republican county chairman to state secretary of commerce, made his preference well known. He called Craig Fuller, his father’s chief of staff, and followed up with handwritten note.
"Dexter is a very bright guy with an excellent record in criminal law," Bush wrote.
The Reagan White House appointed Lehtinen as interim U.S. attorney, a status that eventually left Bush dissatisfied. In 1990, after his father had become president, he wrote to Gray that Lehtinen was being "treated unfairly by the press" and that the Bush administration had been "unfair" to leave him in limbo. (The Senate ultimately rebuffed Lehtinen’s nomination.)
In his correspondence, Bush did not elaborate on his ties to Lehtinen, which had grown deep: He had managed the successful congressional campaign of Lehtinen’s wife, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Bush did not limit his advice to suggesting potential appointees for U.S. attorney. Seven months into his father’s presidency, he aimed much higher, offering his suggestion for a Supreme Court appointment in a letter to the White House. He enclosed the risumi of Peter T. Fay, a federal appellate judge.
"Judge Fay is respected by his peers and the many people who know him in Miami," Bush wrote.
Gray replied that if there were an opening, Fay would get "thoughtful consideration."
The ambition of the request fit a pattern for Bush, who also recommended allies seeking other major positions, like head of White House security and Internal Revenue Service commissioner.
In doing so, Bush typically mentioned a key credential: service to the Florida Republican Party. When he contacted the White House on behalf of Rex J. Ford, a lawyer who wished to become IRS commissioner in the Reagan administration, Bush appended a note on his father’s stationery – "From the desk of George Bush" – noting that Ford was a member of the Florida Republican committee.
Bush’s willingness to reward loyal Republicans in Dade County was part of what endeared him to many within the party, who had at first viewed him with skepticism but came away impressed by his hard work and connections.
"If you treat people nicely and you remember your friends on your way up, they’ll be there on the way down," said Barry Schreiber, a former Dade County commissioner whom Bush recommended for a presidential commission in the 1980s. "Jeb Bush fit that mold."
At times, Bush sounded like a corporate pitchman.
By the summer of 1990, after Bush had left state government and plunged into a corporate career, he had a "very interesting meeting" with Christopher Galvin, a senior executive at Motorola – and Bush shared his enthusiasm with his father’s chief of staff.
"I urge you to visit with Motorola at your convenience to see first-hand how the Motorola experience can help our country (including agencies in the federal government)," Bush wrote, appending a 14-page presentation from the company. In the following months, not only did Sununu, the chief of staff, meet with Motorola executives, but so did the president himself.
Soon, the Bush family’s relationship with Motorola, a major donor to the Florida Republican Party, and Galvin, who became its chief executive, blossomed in ways that benefited both sides.
As governor, Bush honored Motorola with a Sterling Award, a prestigious honor for Florida businesses. His brother George W. Bush, when he was president, appointed Galvin to a committee advising him on national security in telecommunications.
Galvin, who is now a real estate investor, has in turn become a reliable supporter of Jeb Bush. On Wednesday, Galvin will co-host a Chicago fundraiser for Bush’s potential presidential campaign. Asked about the White House meeting, Galvin said he had sought nothing from either the president or his son and, in his discussions with both, merely sought to exchange ideas for improving government operations.
It was not the only time Bush used his access to the White House to nurture relationships. In 1984, Bush aggressively lobbied for an exemption from federal airport noise regulations for another supporter, George Batchelor, who owned a Florida-based airline.
Bush and a former Florida congressman met with James A. Baker III, Reagan’s chief of staff, who advised them "several times" that the White House could not become involved. (The Federal Aviation Administration partly approved the exemption, records show.)
Batchelor became a financial supporter, giving $5,000 to a PAC for Bush’s father in 1985, and donating $500,000 through one of his businesses to the Florida Republican Party in 2000, when Bush was governor. It was the largest donation in the history of the Florida Republican Party.
"I know George Batchelor," Bush told The St. Petersburg Times after the donation. "At this stage in his life, I don’t think there’s anything he wants." Batchelor died in 2002.
Bush seemed to relish his close ties and ready access to his father’s administration, inviting major figures from Washington to Florida for his favored causes.
"It was a considerable plus having the son of a vice president as your person," said Andrew E. Grigsby, a Republican ally who in 1987 sought Bush’s help in finding surplus government helicopters for a client.
The White House complied when Bush sought signed photos of his father, once for Walter Payton, the football star. On another occasion, he asked his father for a letter of condolence for a woman he had met on a flight to Washington, where she had been headed to bury her husband, a serviceman, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Bush’s letters often took a playful tone even on serious issues of governance.
"A cut in the bureaucracy wouldn’t be a bad idea. In fact, our great President would become a hero!" Bush wrote to his father’s staff in 1989.
Later, he shared his disdain for perceived abuses of the legal system. "Tort reform anyone?" he asked.
But Bush’s most pointed pleas focused on the plight of Cuban exiles, an increasingly influential group by the time he arrived in Miami in 1980. Bush, who spoke fluent Spanish and had married a woman he met in Mexico, was quickly welcomed by Cubans, and he adopted their causes as his own, espousing their hard line against Fidel Castro’s government.
Bush sought to arrange a meeting between his father and exile leaders. He called for economic sanctions that would "tighten the noose on Castro." And he questioned the Justice Department’s prosecution of a Cuban militant who had already been incarcerated in "Castro’s jail for 23 years."
Bush, who had no military experience, also sought a promotion for an Army colonel who he noted could become the first U.S. general of Cuban origin.
The president’s staff thought better of acting on that request.
"Armed Services promotion board reacts very negatively to any sort of political pressure, perceived or otherwise," wrote Thomas Collamore, one of his father’s top aides. "I really think it is best to leave this one to run its natural course."
Winning Over Aides
Barely a month into George Bush’s presidency, Jeb Bush made sure that the White House staff knew that he planned to remain among his father’s priorities.
"I hope we can continue to get the president down to Miami as much as we used to when he was a mere VEEP," Bush wrote in an effort to lure his father to Florida for a commencement speech at Miami-Dade Community College.
Even as Bush’s requests flowed, he deftly worked to win over the coterie of staff members surrounding his father, developing a rapport through his unsolicited messages of appreciation and congratulations, the archives show.
"Dad is lucky to have someone of your caliber with him," Bush wrote to Fuller after Fuller’s appointment as his father’s chief of staff.
Many on the president’s staff saw Bush not so much as meddling as fulfilling a duty to the family’s profession.
"It is sort of the family business of extending the political network," Collamore said in an interview.
Members worked diligently to carry out his requests – even if some were out of the ordinary.
In one case, an entrepreneur who had attended a fundraiser for a George Bush PAC in 1985 handed his son a letter requesting a contact at the Department of Agriculture to advance her business plan: increasing the consumption of domestic rabbit meat.
Bush, sounding a bit embarrassed, pursued it nevertheless.
"The enclosed letter is a bit unusual but it is serious," Bush wrote in a letter to Collamore a few days after the fundraiser. "Can you get to me a name at U.S.D.A. to help her out?" Collamore dutifully tracked down the right person.
"If anything else is needed, please don’t hesitate to let me know," Collamore wrote to Bush.
If such an odd request left Collamore annoyed, he never let on. Years later, he traded a series of admiring emails with Bush during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, where Bush’s father, brother and son George P. Bush had gathered. Jeb Bush could not make it, so he asked Collamore to give his son a hug in his place.
Collamore did one better: He arranged for Bush’s son and daughter-in-law to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
"A nice break," he wrote Bush, "from all this convention stuff."