This summer, The Atlantic ran an article asking, “Who is Jeb’s wife?”
Now we are starting to see a clearer picture, as Columba Bush is stepping out into the spotlight. She appeared as the keynote speaker at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence Foundation’s Foundation Door to Hope fundraiser on October 17, an event she had promoted ahead of time in an October 3 op-ed in the Miami Herald. It was her third op-ed of the campaign season, following op-eds published in the Des Moines Register and Las Vegas Review-Journal on the subjects of domestic violence and drug abuse, respectively.
What emerges is a picture of Columba Bush as a dedicated, loving wife and mother, a patron of the arts, and a strong-willed but reserved woman. Much of this was already known—scattered in bits and pieces in old articles gathered from rare interviews—but Bush has never been one to crave attention. She is more at ease at home, watching TV, reading a book, going for a walk, or spending time with the family. In short, she is no Hillary Clinton.
“I’m not interested in politics,” she said in 1991, a sentiment she has affirmed multiple times since then. Columba’s aversion to ideological warfare, her focus on nonpartisan issues, and her lack of narcissism could be viewed as refreshing in today’s hyper-partisan celebrity-politico media environment. But it also has raised questions in some minds—The Atlantic’s article is titled “The Mysterious Columba Bush”—and concerns from third-wave feminists and white nationalists alike.
We Don’t Trust Quiet People
As The Atlantics’s Hanna Rosin wrote, “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.”
Meanwhile, white nationalists at Donald Trump-supporting websites like VDare.com use the lack of details on Columba Bush’s life to question her past citizenship status or loyalties. As far as that goes, she reportedly received a Social Security card in 1966, according to the Washington Post, and became a citizen in 1988.
She met Jeb in 1971 while he was on a service trip with his high school. Details differ in different people’s tellings, but all agree they met in a square in Leon, probably with Jeb seeing her in the back of a car. Columba’s older sister, Lucila, was dating Jeb’s friend, John Schmitz, at the time, and they eventually married and live in Miami, too.
Their romance really changed Jeb. The one-time slacker—reportedly once a member of his high school’s socialist club—started working hard, made honors, and wanted to make something of himself.
From Abusive Father to Happy Marriage
Columba’s father, Jose Maria Garnica, went back and forth between the United States and Mexico. While he was crossing the border to work illegally early on, he eventually acquired legal work status (as a “resident alien”) in 1960.
Growing up in the Garcia household could be tough. In a rare comment on her childhood, Columba said her father “caused the most painful memories of my life and made the life of my mother hell.” In one reported instance, he broke his wife’s, Josefina Gallo Esquivel’s, fingers with a belt buckle. They divorced in 1964.
Columba moved to the United States in the 1970s, and lived with her father and worked in a factory making airplane parts in order to be closer to Jeb, according to a 2001 Associated Press article. She ran away in 1973. According to the version Beatriz Parga wrote in the 2004 book “Columba Bush: the Cinderella of the White House,” Garcia went to get his belt after he caught her smoking once.
She married Jeb at age 19 in 1974 at a small ceremony at the Catholic student center on the University of Texas campus. Shortly thereafter they began moving across Latin America while Jeb worked for international banks, before they headed back to the United States and settled in Miami. Columba enjoys a tranquil home life—“do[ing] the homework with my kids, and—why not— … watch[ing] television,” as she told The Atlantic.
Columba Makes Her Own Choices
One can see why radical postmodern feminists might be a little put off by all this. In emphasizing her transformative effect on Jeb, feminists would see her as being viewed through the prism of her husband. In being comfortable in domestic roles, she could bring to liberal minds the “Stepford Wife archetype” they foisted on Laura Bush. But who is to judge how a political wife must act? It reeks of gender policing to say women must act a certain way. Wasn’t feminism supposed to bring about choice?
Columba’s activism on the issues of domestic violence, drug addiction, and the arts aren’t empty gestures. Those are things that she and her family have really faced. She has had a long-term relationship with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, going back 15 years, and she has an email address with the group, where she solicits comments from the public.
She started an arts foundation, the Children’s Cultural Education Fund, in 1991 to promote the Ballet Folkloric de Mexico and expose American schoolchildren to Mexican performance. She might not be completely at ease speaking in front of huge crowds, but in visiting drug treatment centers and domestic abuse shelters, she is reportedly generous with her time and heart. “My teachers still talk about you coming to Pensacola,” a fellow activist told her. So what if she has “always … been a private person” who “like[s] to be alone”?
A High Contrast with Hillary Clinton
The Atlantic called her “the anti-Bill Clinton,” but I think they contrasted her with the wrong Clinton. Hillary Clinton was the ultimate politically driven first lady. Scoffing at the idea of “staying home and baking cookies and teas,” she took an immediate interest in the politics of the Clinton administration, trying and failing to get HillaryCare passed. She set up for her own career as a senator so she could run for president. The scheming nature of the Clinton relationship makes them the perfect comparison for the Underwoods of “House of Cards,” who embody everything that is wrong with DC politics. That wasn’t missed in The Atlantic, either, where Columba was also described as “the anti–Claire Underwood”—what a compliment!
For all that is contrived in her carefully crafted image, how much of a feminist is Clinton, really? Remember her “60 Minutes” interview in 1992, where she wasn’t standing, but sitting by her man to defend him from revelations that Bill Clinton had an affair with “trailer trash” Gennifer Flowers. Hillary would be standing by him again when his affair with “narcissistic loony toon” Monica Lewinsky was exposed. She continues to stand by Clinton advisors Sidney Blumenthal and James Carville, who went to the press to trash Lewinsky and Paula Jones, respectively. To Carville, sexual assault is a joke: “Hell, if you work for Bill Clinton, you go up and down more times than a whore’s nightgown.”
Hillary even backed down on her professed views about tea and cookies when politics demanded. She celebrated the one-year anniversary of the controversial comment by serving tea in the White House. Even the comment itself was more about politics than principle: she and Bill were trying to divert attention from Whitewater, where it was alleged that Bill had diverted money to her law firm, so she said there was no conflict of interest in her having a career. Her social feminism breaks at the first sign of political expediency.
Too Mexican or Not Mexican Enough?
Columba’s position, moreover, seems more authentic. She doesn’t want to put on airs. Eventually she has to be dragged into politics, not just because she has to as part of the campaign, but also because Trump went out of his way to drag her into his mudslinging.
“#JebBush has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife,” Trump retweeted one of his supporters saying. That same month he said from his own mouth, “If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico.”
Columba eventually sent Trump a tweet in September: “I came to America because I love this country. @realDonaldTrump is wrong.” By now she is tweeting most days, with some messages about her topics of activism.
While the fact that the Bushes often speak Spanish at home and celebrate Hispanic heritage irks some white nationalists, Columba’s story of immigrating to America also riles up some of her former family members on her father’s side, who think she has somehow forgotten her heritage. Garnica’s sister, Maria Diega Mendez, is a 75-year-old street vendor who reportedly earns 80 pesos a day ($4.85) selling fruit. She thinks Columba should help her.
This spring, Mendez has been the subject of some Spanish-language news articles, and her story eventually got picked up by Univision, which annoyed the Bush campaign. The only memory she has of Columba is from when they lived in the same city for a few months when Columba was six years old.
Garnica, who died in 2013, kept a lot of press clippings about Columba and tried to meet President Bush in 2001 when he visited Mexico. He received a letter back that said, “Dear Mr. Garnica. Thanks for the framed photograph given to me during my visit to Leon, Mexico. I appreciate your consideration. Best regards, George W. Bush”
Mendez still hangs onto that letter. “Those who have heard Columba’s side, including author Parga, say Garnica tried to get in touch only after he realized his daughter had married into a famous family,” the Washington Post reported. Bush spokeswoman Kirsty Campbell told the Post by email, “Mrs. Bush, her sister Lucila, and her mother have remained close and severed ties with him more than four decades ago.”
Who is Columba Bush? A remarkable woman with a remarkable story, it seems.