CORAL GABLES, Fla. » For 20 years, Columba Bush anticipated the day she would have to answer one big question: Would she support her husband, Jeb Bush, if he decided to run for president?
Last summer and fall, as she wrestled with whether to say yes, her sense of duty was mixed with dread.
Born in Mexico, she had married into a famously political American family and had always been an outsider: a prayerful Roman Catholic, a sensitive loner and lover of the arts who still speaks in heavily accented English. As Florida’s first lady, she had arranged Mass in the governor’s mansion and endured weeks of bad press for a European shopping spree. She blamed politics for friction in her marriage and as a factor in her daughter’s drug addiction. A run for the White House would expose her to the spotlight as never before.
"She knows the good and the bad of being around politics," said Jim Towey, an official in the administration of President George W. Bush, Jeb’s brother, and a close friend to both Jeb and Columba. "It’s opened the door to extraordinary experiences for her. But she’s paid quite a price, as well."
Over Thanksgiving, during a family vacation in Mexico, friends say, Columba Bush gave her approval – though not before winning her husband’s promise to spend some time every week with her and their children and grandchildren. A few weeks later, over salads by the bubbling fountain in the courtyard of the Biltmore Hotel here, she signaled her acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, to a friend, Bart Hudson, describing her husband with her highest form of praise. "You know," Hudson recalled her saying of Jeb Bush, "he is an artist, and he is very good."
Now, there is a new question confronting Columba Bush: What kind of candidate’s wife will she be? In a party looking to soften its image and expand its tent, the prospect of the nation’s first Latina first lady could be a powerful draw for Hispanic voters disenchanted with many Republicans’ hard-line stance on immigration. But Columba Bush, 61, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has never been an eager campaigner.
"Jeb is a natural-born politician, but I’m not a political person," she told The Miami Herald in January 1989, shortly before her father-in-law, George H.W. Bush, became president. "At home, we’re a common, ordinary couple."
That search for ordinariness has been in conflict with her husband’s yearning for something bigger and the expectations long placed on both of them. Columba Bush has struggled to make peace with her husband’s world, but she is the furthest thing from a classic political spouse. If the 2016 election comes down to a choice between Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, she and Bill Clinton would present a startling contrast.
Columba Bush cherishes quiet lunches by herself, eating simple Latin fare like jamsn serrano at no-frills restaurants or painting in the studio of a friend, the artist Romero Britto, where her last work was of a little cat. When her husband was governor, she preferred spending hours touring women’s shelters and talking to abuse victims rather than highlighting her work against domestic violence to the news media. Her best friend is her sister, Lucila, who married a friend of Jeb Bush’s and lives just a few miles away.
"I have never heard Columba discuss the mechanics of politics," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and a friend of the Bushes. "I think that’s one of the things Jeb loves about her. He doesn’t come home to a spouse who’s been obsessing over political blogs all day."
Columba Garnica Gallo – known to her friends as Colu, pronounced Coo-loo – was a restless 17-year-old who wanted to explore life beyond Lesn, her bustling hometown, when she met Jeb Bush, an exchange student and academic underachiever from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1971.
Little is known about her parents; Columba Bush rarely grants interviews and has mostly talked about her mother’s faith and perseverance. But her father, according to some reports, was a migrant worker. They divorced when Columba Bush was young, and her mother now lives in Miami. Her father abandoned the family when she was a teenager, according to Jeb Bush’s aides, and she did not have a relationship with him after that.
By all accounts, meeting Columba made Jeb more diligent: When he returned to school, he earned better grades and went on to the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in less than three years. They married in 1974, on a weekend that was also the first time she met her father-in-law. She had met Barbara Bush several weeks earlier. For years afterward, she referred to her mother-in-law as Mrs. Bush.
While Jeb began a business career, Columba had "problems" adjusting to her new life and was in need of "self-confidence," George H.W. Bush wrote in a diary entry at the time. The couple and their two young children, George and Noelle (Jeb Jr. was born later), moved to Venezuela for a couple of years when Jeb Bush got a job there with a bank, and then settled in Miami: a city with a Latin American culture that delighted Columba Bush and presented Jeb Bush with fresh political turf where he could develop his own identity apart from his famous family.
In 1988, the elder Bush ran for president, and his daughter-in-law got a painful introduction to national politics. Columba Bush, who became an American citizen so she could vote that November, later said she had found herself "trembling" after he referred in public to her children as "the little brown ones." While she moved quickly to defend the elder Bush, describing his reference as a term of endearment, the phrase hung over the children and their mother for years.
"Columba is very sweet, very polite, very reserved, and politics isn’t known for any of that," said former Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida, a Republican who made Jeb Bush his secretary of commerce in the late 1980s.
Six years after his father was elected president, Jeb Bush made his first run for governor of Florida. When he was not campaigning, he was thinking about policy, and some weeks he spent more time with advisers, voters and the phone than with his wife. Friends say Columba Bush was stretched thin with three children, two of them teenagers, and the stress of occasional but high-profile public appearances with her husband. She felt out of sorts both at home – Jeb Bush usually made the family dinners, because she rarely cooks – and in the world of politics. As one friend said, she vastly preferred watching Mexican soap operas to attending fundraising events.
"She would come to some of the big political dinners and do some rallies, often speaking in Spanish, but her focus was on trying to give the kids a normal life," said Al Cardenas, a leader in the Republican Party of Florida in the 1990s.
Jeb Bush lost that election, and the period that followed was difficult. Jeb Bush, who was raised an Episcopalian, sought to heal through an intense period of Bible study, prayer and preparation to become a Roman Catholic, knowing the importance of his wife’s faith to her, as well as her desire to have the family share a religion. Columba Bush became more active in philanthropy, raising money for young people to attend cultural events like performances of Ballet Folklsrico de Mixico, a favorite troupe of hers.
In 1998, Jeb Bush ran for governor again, and this time he won. Columba Bush had to trade multicultural Miami for traditionalist Tallahassee, a place where she never quite fit in.
"If people in Tallahassee were looking for a Southern belle in that job of first lady," Towey said, "they had the wrong woman."
Columba Bush devoted herself to advocacy on issues that were important to her: promoting the arts (she once helped bring paintings from the private collection of Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, to the Smithsonian Institution), combating domestic violence and trying to prevent drug abuse.
"She spent a lot of time asking about underserved communities, like the large Latino community and the Haitian community," said Tiffany Carr, executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It led us to hire many more Spanish speakers at shelters and for the statewide hotline, and make sure all out material was readable in Spanish."
But Columba Bush also found the public spotlight searing.Returning to the United States in 1999 from one of her regular trips to Europe, Columba Bush lied to customs officials about her overseas purchases: She said she had spent only $500, but receipts were found for $19,000 in clothes and jewelry. A spokesman for Jeb Bush said at the time that she had underreported the goods because she did not want Jeb Bush to know how much she had spent. (Jeb Bush is known among his friends as frugal with his own clothing, at least.)
The episode only increased Columba Bush’s reluctance to deal with reporters, and her desire to withdraw from public scrutiny.
"My husband always said that if the public knew her, they would love her," said Peggy Sapp, who worked with Columba Bush on drug-abuse prevention and praised her as "a good listener" who worked hard "behind the scenes." Asked why the public did not get to know Columba Bush, Sapp said, "I think that whole thing with the airport just set it off."
Then came her daughter’s struggle with addiction. Toward the end of Jeb Bush’s first term as governor, Noelle, then 24, was charged with a felony for trying to fill a fraudulent prescription for Xanax. She ended up in a drug rehabilitation center, but served stints in jail after she was found with pills and later with crack cocaine in a shoe. Some relatives attended one court hearing, but her parents stayed away to avoid drawing more attention to their daughter.
Soon after, Columba Bush was asked if Noelle’s difficulties were related to being part of a political family. "Absolutely," The Washington Post quoted her as saying in 2003, though she quickly stopped herself.
When Jeb Bush left office in early 2007, "Columba really did retreat back to her world in Miami, with the arts and her family," said Towey, who is now president of Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida.
Always out there was the question of whether Jeb Bush would run for president. But as the years have passed and their children have grown older, according to friends, Columba Bush’s anxieties about a White House run have eased slightly. They say she worries most about Noelle, who is now working as an office manager for a software company in Orlando, Florida.
Associates of Jeb Bush said they expected Columba Bush to eventually take part in the campaign on issues that matter most to her, like domestic violence or Latin American culture. (She attended Jeb Bush’s foreign policy address in Chicago last week but did not speak herself.) Her views on immigration are similar to her husband’s, associates said – he favors a broad overhaul of immigration laws – but they would not be more specific about her opinions on border security and citizenship opportunities.
Friends and associates asked about her political opinions say that more than anything, she believes her husband has a calling.
Or, as Columba Bush put it in a Spanish-language interview in 1991 with the Miami magazine Selecta: "I am a firm believer in destiny. I feel that what is important is written, and you do what you do."
Patrick Healy and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times