1. Archive

In English and Spanish, Bush spoke over the gale

Over the weekend, I was doing what everybody who had power was doing: making myself crazy while watching the endless TV coverage of Hurricane Jeanne.

I kept trying to interpret the lines and swirls on the weather maps. Calling rain "rain," I learned, was not enough. "Rain bands." That was better.

I got lectures from TV reporters on how only foolish people would stand outside and brave the unleashed forces of the storm, while the TV reporters were outside doing just that.

I watched videos of enormous oaks uprooted and prayed for the one out front of my house.

But none of that impressed me the way Jeb Bush did. Not for standing tall and radiating calm in crisis _ you expect a governor to do that _ but for a gesture that most Floridians might gloss over or even resent.

As he has done with this season's other hurricanes, whenever he had a press briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Bush explained himself not only in English but in Spanish.

Then, according to his spokesman, Jacob DiPietre, Bush did something many of us never saw. He repeated his message in interviews with Spanish language TV and radio _ over and over through six weeks of storms.

That Bush speaks Spanish is widely known. He learned it while a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He was 17 and in an exchange program in Mexico, teaching English and improving his Spanish, when he met his wife, Columba, in 1971. He eventually graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Latin American studies.

My own understanding of Spanish is feeble, so I can't rate Bush for his competency in the language. But his confidence using it comes through even to somebody like me. Native English speakers often don't seem seem able _ and I've tried _ to grasp Spanish's fluid accent. Bush has it down far better than many other Americans.

The governor's use of Spanish has almost always been discussed in political terms, as a tool to appeal to a massive potential voter bloc: More than 2.7-million Floridians speak Spanish.

What I watched over the weekend, though, was beyond politics, almost untouched by it. He was using Spanish to reach out in a terrible time of need. He extended comfort to people who might otherwise have been denied it and ignored.

And he sent a message, the same message he sends every time he uses Spanish, that the rest of us ought to respect those who speak this language. Spanish, and the Hispanic cultures, are part of the fabric of Florida.

That is not the message you'd expect from a Republican governor in a state that passed a constitutional amendment in 1988 to make English its official language.

There was, then and now, plenty of resentment against all things Hispanic. (This column will probably reignite some of it.) The resentment showed up in the vote on the amendment. It passed easily but mercifully never amounted to more than words on a page. Implementation was up to the Legislature, which did nothing.

It's just my guess, but I suspect Bush grasps what all bilingual or multilingual people do. Not only do they know another country's food, jokes, the phrases that have no English equivalent; they also have a window on another way of thinking, a cultural world to which the rest of us are denied entry.

Because of this, their personal universe is bigger, broader. They have the kind of sensitivity that would propel Jeb Bush to reach out to Floridians who are invisible to many of the rest of us.

Kudos to him. When they write the history of this storm-tossed summer and fall, it should note that these were days when the governor showed just how much he worried about all of us, and I do mean all.

You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or (813) 226-3402.