Columba Bush Early Life
Columba Bush was born 17 August 1953 and raised in Leon, 250 miles outside Mexico City, where she met Jeb Bush and married him when she was 20. In Mexico, Columba’s relatives say they are proud that someone from a remote and still poor area is in a position to make history, but saddened that she no longer has a relationship with her extended family.
Columba was a silent, obedient child who lived in her own fantasy world in order to evade the problems that forced her to mature at a very young age. Always neglected, she had to overcome her father’s departure when she was a young child. Magic surrounds the true-life romance of Columba and Jeb Bush, a fairy tale that goes beyond borders and tradition. A love that blossoms among picturesque Mexican landscapes and the majestic halls of the White House.
The key to Columba’s life story is in fact her father Jose Maria Garnica Rodriguez – a man who went to his grave without seeing her for decades, saddened that he did not know his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Antonia Morales Garnica, Jose Maria’s second wife said: ‘Jose Maria’s dying wish was to meet his grandchildren – Columba’s kids. He wanted to meet his grandchildren. He died with that wish unfulfilled.’
Columba Bush Biography and Profile
Columba Bush, a Mexican-American philanthropist, born 17 August 1953, served as First Lady of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is the wife of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Columba’s father, Jose Maria Garnica Rodriguez, reportedly crossed the border without proper papers on at least one occasion before he got his resident alien card in 1960. After that he went back and forth between Mexico and America, contributing to Columba’s complicated relationship with him and with the United States.
Cinderella of the White House
In a 2004 biography of Columba written in Spanish by Beatriz Parga, whose title translates to Columba Bush: The Cinderella of the White House, Parga writes that her father caused the most painful memories of her life. She says Columba’s father once hit her mother with a belt buckle, breaking her fingers. Her parents divorced in 1963, when she was 10, and many press accounts have given the impression that she never saw her father after that. But Parga’s book tells another story, recounting a trip Columba took to California in 1973 to visit her father. One day he came home from work and discovered that she’d been smoking a cigarette, so he took off his belt and ran after her. She locked herself in a bathroom, and when he left, she snuck off to the bus station and went back to Mexico. Her father’s second wife has told reporters still another version that makes her husband, who died in 2013, look better: she says Columba told her father she was going out to get the mail and disappeared, and they assumed she was going to see Jeb.
Columba Reportedly Unhappy
The role of political spouse always entails sacrifice, but Columba’s case has been extreme. Jeb’s time in office coincided with stretches when Columba was reportedly unhappy, because of his absence or because of troubles with one of their three children or because she herself had landed in the news in ways that mortified her. It was during Jeb Bush’s governing years that Columba let it slip to the press how her husband’s career had damaged their children, and that she reportedly told Jeb he had ruined her life. During his governorship, which ran from 1999 to 2007, she often retreated to Miami while he was living in Tallahassee.
All of which makes you wonder what it will be like for her to live through a national campaign and possibly a presidency, during which the mode she’s enjoyed least will become her entire existence. In the Jackie Kennedy years, she might have gotten away with a smile, a few supporting speeches, and an appropriate cause or two. (One of the rare YouTube videos of Columba shows her giving a Jackie-like tour of her house to a Spanish-speaking TV anchor.) But feminist resistance to the idea of wife as silent prop has in some ways put more pressure on a first lady to be serious and weighty and comfortable in front of the camera, giving someone like Columba no easy place to hide.
“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.”
First Lady Worthy Causes
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.””
Jeb Bush’s Courting of Columba
Jeb Bush’s courting of Columba at 17 is possibly the most outlandish thing he’s ever done. In a family where the sons traditionally choose their wives from a small society circle, Jeb’s choice registered as baffling, even reckless. In 1970, as a senior at Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, he took a class called Man and Society, which explored poverty, conflicts, and the dynamics of power. At the end of the winter term, the students could choose to spend three months either in a poor neighborhood in South Boston or in a poor indigenous village outside León, Mexico. Jeb was from Texas and already studying Spanish. Along with 10 other classmates, he opted to skip the Boston winter.
“We actually built a schoolhouse,” Jeb’s former classmate Lawry Bump told me. All these years later, Bump still thinks about the trip sometimes, because it was a “real awakening.” They worked every day to complete the structure; Jeb was quoted in the student paper saying that one of the villagers cried with appreciation. In the late afternoons, the students would all meet up in the main plaza in León and eat—bacon and pancakes for the equivalent of 40 cents—and then in the evenings they’d sometimes get together at one of the houses where they were staying to drink and play poker.
As Jeb tells the story, one day he saw 16-year-old Columba across the plaza and it was love at first sight. “Lightning” is how he put it to The Boston Globe. She was not a society girl from Mexico City. Even by the standards of small-town León, she was on the social fringe. Relatives have described her as a free-spirit daughter of a divorced mother in a community where, in her own words, divorce was a sin. Not that it matters much now, but Bump’s version of the couple’s meeting is a little different. He says that another classmate, John Schmitz, had met Columba’s older sister, Lucila. Schmitz needed a wingman for a double date and called Bump. “As much as I would have loved to have been set up with a girl down there, I literally had about a 104-degree fever and was down with Montezuma’s revenge,” Bump told me.
“The next move for John was to get with Jeb.” (“I don’t know if he would have met Columba on his own,” Al Cardenas says. “You know, Jeb’s more of an introvert. He’s not the type to go up to an unknown girl and say, ‘Hi. I’m Jeb Bush. Let’s have a cup of coffee.’?”)
Jeb Bush Running For Governor
In 1994, Jeb ran for governor against Lawton Chiles and lost. He campaigned six days a week, morning and night, only slowing down when he was “dog sick,” he said. His wife, meanwhile, was home and overwhelmed with raising teenage children. One of them had a drug problem—only years later did they publicly admit that it was their daughter, Noelle. George P., then a Rice University student, was caught by police that year breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s house at 4 a.m. to see her; when her father asked him to leave, he drove his Ford Explorer over her family’s front lawn. The Schweizer biography reports that during that period, several family members overheard Columba say to Jeb, “You’ve ruined my life.”
It’s hard to know how the disappearance of Columba’s father from her life has shaped her relationship with Jeb; perhaps it compounded her anger and alienation during this time. After the campaign, Jeb called the experience the most “humbling” of his life and admitted that it had estranged him from his family. Raised Episcopalian, he converted to Catholicism, partly as a gesture of reconciliation with his wife.
In 1998, Jeb ran for governor again and won. The family relocated to Tallahassee, and as first lady, Columba changed the look of the governor’s mansion. She organized exhibits of the works of Salvador Dalí, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, and of her favorite local artists. This did not always go over well in a city much further culturally removed from Miami than the 500 miles between them would suggest. “She was doing Latino, not southern belle,” Jim Towey recalled. “And it did ruffle some feathers.” Columba took refuge in the Kool Beanz Café, the rare restaurant in town back then with an adventurous menu, and took walks alone around a Tallahassee park. Eventually, she and Jeb agreed that she’d spend more of her time in Miami.
In 1999, shortly after Jeb won the gubernatorial election, she faced public scrutiny. Returning to the U.S. from a trip to Paris, Columba told customs officials that she’d spent $500 on overseas purchases. She was searched, however, and officials found receipts for $19,000 in clothes and jewelry. A Bush spokesman at the time said she did not want her husband to know how much she had spent. “The embarrassment I felt made me ashamed to face my family and friends,” Columba said at a charity event later that year. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life.” She also said, “I did not ask to join a famous family. I simply wanted to marry the man I loved.”
Jeb Bush Presidential Campaign and Columba Bush Controversies
In the run-up to Jeb’s prospective presidential campaign, Columba burst back into the news in exactly the way she had dreaded. In February, The Washington Post ran a story about more jewelry purchases. The paper reported that in 2000, less than a year after the customs fiasco, she’d taken out a loan to buy $42,311.70 worth of jewelry in a single day, and that she had spent at least $90,000 at a single South Florida chain store, Mayors Jewelers. This time Columba did not apologize or sound wistful about her fate, and Jeb said nothing. Kristy Campbell, Jeb’s spokeswoman, only confirmed that yes, Columba made jewelry purchases “from time to time,” and left it to the conservative press to call bias on The Post for highlighting a private citizen’s perfectly legal spending habits. The paper used the phrase expensive tastes, which surely had Democratic strategists thinking about Ann Romney’s horse.
What do the jewelry purchases say about the Bushes’ marriage? The Post wrote, “There is no doubt that Jeb and Columba Bush could cover their bills.” But his financial statement for 2000 shows $2.3 million in assets and an income of $202,616, which suggests that a $40,000 purchase was not negligible. It seems especially notable given Jeb’s pride in his frugality, which is, famously, a family trait—Barbara Bush made it clear that the pearls she wore as first lady were fake. Also, jewelry is loaded with relationship significance. Perhaps the Bushes, like many couples, were going through a bad stretch. Or perhaps Columba, despite not being much of a society wife, just has a hard time resisting sparkle. (Old profiles of her mention high heels and Chanel.)
When Jeb Bush was exploring whether to run for president in 2016, he said that one of his two major considerations was whether it was “right for my family.” The Miami Herald had reported as far back as 2011 that Columba was on board with a future presidential run, and given who Jeb is, it couldn’t have been the first time she’d considered the possibility. In October of last year, Jeb told the Associated Press that his wife was “supportive” of the idea. Still, throughout the fall, the sense that she was holding on to a veto lingered. Then, in February, The New York Times reported that over Thanksgiving, which the family celebrated in Mexico, “Mrs. 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.”
George H. W. Bush Autobiography, ‘Man of Integrity’
In 1988, George H. W. Bush wrote his autobiography, Man of Integrity, with Doug Wead, and the two discussed possibly dedicating it to his eldest grandson, George P. Bush. Although the boy was all of 11, it was already clear to his grandfather that this son of Jeb and Columba’s would carry the dynasty into the next generation. He ultimately dedicated the book to his wife, but he included a letter to George P. from “Gamby,” in which he imagines little “P” 50 years down the road, out on a rock looking into the ocean. George P. is a Bush through and through; his own young son—Columba and Jeb’s grandson—is named Prescott, after the family patriarch. Columba is a ghost in that lineage.
“I think in life, most of the things are not under our control. My life has been like that,” she told The Miami Herald in 1999. “I try to enjoy whatever comes.”
Columba Bush Quick Facts
Columba Bush’s got an elaborate jewelry collection. Mrs. Bush really, really likes jewelry and spent lavishly on it during her husband’s political career. In 1999, she was detained and fined by customs officials for lying about how much she’d spent during a Paris shopping trip; she’d actually spent $19,000 and ended up paying more than $4000 in fines. She was slammed in the media for weeks, but it did not stop her spending habits. A year later, she spent $42,311.70 in one day on a handful of pieces of diamond jewelry including a $25,000 pair of platinum diamond stud earrings and a $10,500 bracelet. Over 14 years, The Washington Post reports that Mrs. Bush spent more than $90,000 at one jewelry store in Florida.
She’s not a political person. Columba doesn’t want to go to the galas, she doesn’t want to fundraise, and she really doesn’t want politics influencing her immediate family. Both profiles document Columba’s reluctance to be a public figure—she blamed politics for causing tension in her marriage and contributing to her daughter’s battle with drug addiction. When she did weigh into the political sphere, she focused on raising awareness on issues like domestic violence and the arts. The Times notes in particular how the Miami resident never really fit in with the state capital, Tallahassee. “If people in Tallahassee were looking for a Southern belle in that job of first lady,” one friend and political operative remarked, “they had the wrong woman.”
She loves her telenovelas. Both profiles hint to Columba’s love of Mexican soaps. The Post quotes a line from a 1989 Miami Herald article: “She would trade 20 society galas for one juicy Spanish soap opera savored in the comfort of her South Dade County home,” while the Times cites a friend saying the same.
Hers was the first vote Jeb needed. Last summer and fall, the Times reports, she grappled with whether or not to jump on board with her husband’s presidential ambitions. But on Thanksgiving, during a family vacation in Mexico, Columba said yes – with one caveat: her husband would spend some time every week with the family each week.
If Jeb runs and wins, she’d be the second foreign-born first lady. Columba was born in Mexico; as an immigrant – one who still speaks with a Spanish accent – she could be a helpful surrogate for a party that has struggled to soften their reputation amongst Latinos. Louisa Johnson Adams – wife of John Quincy Adams – was the only other foreign-born First Lady in U.S. history. She was born in England in 1775.
Spouse: Jeb Bush. Children: George P. Bush, Noelle Bush, John Ellis Bush, Jr.
Columba Bush Biography and Profile