Voters' Vida Loca

Uncle George's nephew finds what he never knew at Rice: Latino causes

Democrats did the Macarena in 1996. But this year Republicans are dancing to an up-and-coming Hispanic fad -- a Latino Bush.

Brown, suave and speaking Spanish sans gringo accent, George P. Bush appears in bilingual television commercials and a host of campaign stops, all aimed at convincing Latino swing voters that Uncle George W. Bush cares about them.

"I am a young Latino in the U.S. and very proud of my bloodline," says George P. in ads airing in New York and other key states with sizable Latino electorates. He's the son of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and wife Columba, who was born in Mexico.

George P. Bush, pressing the flesh for his uncle in New York, apparently embraced no Hispanic issues during his Houston years.
AP/Tina Fineberg
George P. Bush, pressing the flesh for his uncle in New York, apparently embraced no Hispanic issues during his Houston years.

"I have an uncle that is running for president because he believes in the same thing: opportunity for every American, for every Latino," the younger Bush says in the 30-second TV spots. "His name? The same as mine, George Bush."

George P. is popping up in The New York Times and everywhere else these days. USA Today dubbed him a Hispanic hybrid of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Ricky Martin. People en Español magazine labeled him "hunky" and pronounced him a "buzz" among Latinos.

He has waved to fans during East Harlem's Puerto Rican Day, wowed crowds at California campaign rallies and landed the prestigious youth chairmanship for the approaching Republican National Convention. He's even got a prominent place on the Bush campaign Web site.

So national coverage would seem to indicate that George P. is the essence of passion for his people, a handsome young political warrior with a la vida loca commitment and an obvious legacy of activism for Latino causes.

Just don't ask his former classmates at Rice University about that. There were Hispanic campus groups and events that promoted Latino pride and heritage in his era. But the GOP's new "genie in a bottle" was nowhere among them.

George P., some former classmates say, peddles his heritage atop his uncle's campaign stump now, but as a Rice student he steered clear of virtually all things Latino.

Ten years before his Rice graduation, George P. and the other grandchildren of the elder George Bush made their first mark on the national scene. Bush, in his presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, was hankering to show off the young 'uns to President Ronald Reagan, arriving for the GOP convention in New Orleans. Bush, unaware he was near media microphones that picked up his comments, pointed the family out to Reagan as he said, "That's Jebby's kids from Florida, the little brown ones."

The comment infuriated Democratic Hispanic activists, who charged that Bush was insensitive. An angry Bush defended the comments as affectionate. In current media interviews, George P. shrugs off the incident. He likes to point out that he is the favorite of the elder Bush, regularly accompanying Grandpa on fishing or hunting trips. His mother made sure he was brought up bilingual and appreciated Spanish music long before the trendy days of Marc Anthony and Cristina Aguilera.

But like his Texas uncle, George P. seems to have followed the pattern of the privileged lifestyle. He spent his formative years in an exclusive Coral Gables prep school with classmates such as heartthrob Enrique Iglesias.

A person familiar with George P.'s application to Rice says the admission committee wasn't "too impressed" with his vita, but accepted him for the fall of 1994. He was a walk-on to the Rice baseball team his freshman year but got little playing time and abandoned that by his sophomore year.

Some students of that period describe him as quiet during the day, a guy who rode his bike and kept to himself between classes. Former classmates remember he was preoccupied with being a Bush, but seldom talked about it. A photo in a 1995 yearbook shows him standing alone. Its caption: "loner."

"I had him for a class, and he was pretty quiet and didn't offer much to the discussion," recalls one peer. "I didn't even know he was a George Bush until they called his name out in class one day."

Marty Makulski, George P.'s fellow dorm dweller, says his friend never relied on family name or influence to skirt responsibilities. George P. was quiet in class because it took him time to open up, Makulski says, adding that he found impressive intellect in his companion. "We took a Chicano poetry class together and discussed and debated political issues," Makulski says. "He's a very articulate person."

Contrasting with the quiet academic image is the one outlined by students about an after-hours George P., who apparently possessed his uncle's previous penchant for college drinking and parties, at least until he "mellowed out" in his final years at Rice. Former classmates recall that their Bush contemporary was a frequent visitor of the on-campus tavern, preoccupied with billiards rather than books.

"I rarely saw him anywhere but at the pub, parties or playing pool," says one student from that time.

While some of the current biographical information refers to George P. as a volunteer mentor and "inner-city" youth coach in those years, former students who were interviewed say George P. hardly showed interest in any groups or causes. That included an absence from Latino activities.

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