Voters' Vida Loca
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.
"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.
At the time, the primary Hispanic campus organization was HACER, the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice. To Stella Flores, HACER president when George P. was at Rice, the current Latino godsend to the GOP was the Invisible Man. She says she doesn't remember him participating in any group events, or even hanging out on campus with any other Latino students. Likewise, former HACER vice president Mike Gomez says the now proud Latino was a no-show at events saluting Latino pride.
"During my time at Rice, he was not a member of HACER, nor was he active in pushing minority issues at the university," Gomez remembers. He concedes that there was the traditional apathy on campus, but that made it that much more important to find people who cared.
"If George P. had been active in any form, we would have welcomed it, encouraged it even," Gomez says. "But he wasn't."
That nonparticipation apparently extends to the academic arena.
Dr. Jose Aranda, associate professor of English and one of a handful of minority tenure professors, doesn't remember George P. ever signing up for his Chicano studies, or any other ethnic studies. "I never had George as a student," says Aranda. "I only met him once, very quickly, and our paths never crossed again to my knowledge."
"[Bush] was never involved in any of the multicultural groups or events I oversaw," says Cathi Clack. She's director of the Office for Multicultural Affairs at Rice and has been an adviser to many of the minority students.
Former classmate Makulski dismisses the questions about his friend's involvement. He says other companions would refer to George P. as Jorge, with the Spanish pronunciation, because he liked private discussions of politics and culture that reflected his uncle's conservative outlook. The young Bush wasn't active in campus organizations, Makulski concedes, but he was "very proud of being brown" and "was comfortable with his identity."
After earning a history degree from Rice in 1998, George P. took a teaching job in the Florida farming community of Homestead south of Miami. He abandoned that for the campaign and for his future law school plans. Harvard, New York University, Columbia and Yale law schools rejected his application. A spokesman for the Bush campaign says George P. has been accepted by the University of Texas law school, not too far from his uncle's Governor's Mansion. He'll start in the fall or spring semester, the spokesman says, after the high-profile stint on the presidential campaign trail.
Makulski insists his old friend doesn't want the limelight. "George has never sought all the attention he is receiving. Others are trying to thrust it on him while he tries to find his own niche in things."
Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, says the nephew's ad campaign shows how George W. Bush is savvy in marketing himself to Latino voters.
"Now I've seen [George P.] on TV, and he's sharp, articulate and has a lot of appeal across the board," says Mindiola. "Whether that sways Hispanic voters in states like New York or California remains to be seen, but I think George W. Bush is smart for using someone in his family like this."
Mindiola predicts a future in politics for George P. "He certainly has what it takes to reach out to a number of voters if he chooses to go into politics and continue the Bush tradition."
As for George P.'s recent emphasis on his Latino identity, and his apparent earlier aversion to it, Mindiola says that shouldn't hurt either Bush. Some Hispanic students just need "time to crystallize."
"Of course, some of us would like to see them coming out of the womb with the fist in the air," Mindiola says. "But that just doesn't happen."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter