July 9, 2015


The Mysterious Columba Bush : Who is Jeb's wife, what effect will she have on his campaign--and what effect will his campaign have on their marriage? (HANNA ROSIN  JUNE 2015, The Atlantic)

"She had the most limited role of any spouse I've ever worked with," a strategist on Jeb's 2002 reelection campaign told me. Columba would participate in events now and again, but everyone understood that a public role "was not in her comfort zone." Her influence was felt on the campaign mostly because members of the staff knew that they often had to make sure Jeb ended his days early enough to be home for dinner. Those who know her well paint her as the anti-Claire Underwood, the political spouse on House of Cards. You could also describe her as the anti-Bill Clinton, her possible counterpart in next year's general election. "She is not somebody who is reading any political reporting or interested in being in the room to strategize tactics. She is completely uninterested in that," says Jim Towey, a friend of the couple's who served in George W. Bush's administration. "In politics you get a lot of clone people. And she is so not the clone."

Who she is is a harder question, due in part to her reluctance to develop a public persona or talk to the press. (She wouldn't talk to me, even with campaign season heating up, although Jeb and I corresponded.) Bush loyalists bristle at the idea that Columba would have trouble fitting into the role of first lady in the White House. One scolded me that the press was just being "stupid" and "lazy" by saying that she hates public life and failing to recognize all the causes she has taken up over the past 15 or so years.

It's true that she has adopted first-lady-worthy causes, working with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and Arts for Life, a group that gives scholarships to young artists. By all accounts, she advocates earnestly and effectively, visiting shelters, studying reports on addiction in adolescence, putting together exhibitions, and connecting donors with charities. Everyone I interviewed who's worked with her says she doesn't seek the limelight, nor even any recognition for her actions--which is admirable. It's admirable, too, that she's been able to remain, well, normal, despite her marriage into such a high-powered political clan. But as a modern first lady, she'll be expected to come out from behind the scenes. And whether she likes it or not, what she does and how she feels will affect her husband as a person and as a candidate--and that interplay will be endlessly dissected.

These days, Columba's distaste for public life, historically a source of volatility for Jeb, is being reframed as a balm. "What he loves about Columba is that she's an emotional anchor for him," Ana Navarro, a family friend and a Republican strategist, told me. "She lives outside the political bubble and brings his focus back to the really important things in life, like family and friends and faith."

"Everyone seeks emotional refuge," Al Cardenas, another family friend and a former head of the Florida Republican Party, told me. "And that's what she provides. She brings sanity into a world filled with politics." But even Cardenas seemed to sense that it can be hard to conceive of them as a couple, like Bill and Hillary or Brad and Angelina, because she's so absent from the publicly visible parts of Jeb's world. So at the end of our conversation, he felt the need to make it explicit to me, about Jeb's wife of 41 years: "Look, he loves her unconditionally. She is a major, integral part of his life.""

Posted by at July 9, 2015 7:03 PM

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