A normally reserved Jeb Bush shares story of daughter Noelle's drug addiction

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush at the Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, N.H., on Tuesday. [Cheryl Senter | New York Times]
Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush at the Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, N.H., on Tuesday. [Cheryl Senter | New York Times]
Published Jan. 6, 2016

HOOKSETT, N.H. — Jeb Bush's oldest son, George P. Bush, serves as the land commissioner of Texas and is nicknamed "47" — a look ahead to when, many joke, he will become the 47th president.

His youngest son, John Ellis Bush Jr., briefly saw his name floated as a contender for a Florida congressional seat.

But Bush's daughter, Noelle Bush, has stayed far from the world of politics, in part because of her long struggle with addiction. She faced felony charges that she tried to fill a fraudulent prescription for Xanax when she was 24, and ended up in jail after she was found with pills and then crack cocaine in her shoe.

On Tuesday, Jeb Bush tried to articulate how his family dealt with his daughter's difficulties, which became uncomfortably public when he was governor of Florida.

"What I learned was that the pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges, and kind of spirals out of control, is something that is shared with a whole lot of people," he said.

Bush has said he first checked with his daughter, now in recovery, to make sure she was comfortable with him sharing her story, which he did at a forum on heroin addiction, a problem that has devastated many families in this state.

To knowing murmurs, Bush spoke about how he'll never forget the day his daughter graduated from Florida drug court. "It was an extraordinary event," he said, addressing more than 100 people — most of them addiction and substance abuse advocates, and some in recovery themselves — in a ballroom at Southern New Hampshire University.

And he recalled realizing just how many families were dealing with the same challenges — how he would be speaking about education policy or economic development and look out to see "people were looking at me, knowing that I was going through the same thing as a loved one."

For Bush, who still often resists the soul-baring, emotive demands of modern politics, talking about his daughter's struggles does not seem to come naturally. He spoke in his own restrained way, though earlier he wrote more emotionally about his daughter in a blog post on Medium .

"As a father, I have felt the heartbreak of drug abuse," Bush wrote in the post. "I never expected to see my precious daughter in jail. It wasn't easy, and it became very public when I was governor of Florida, making things even more difficult for Noelle. She went through hell, so did her mom, and so did I."

Drug addiction and its personal costs have produced many of this campaign season's most memorable and poignant moments. Not long ago, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey told the story of a close friend who fell victim to prescription drug abuse and lost his family, job and, ultimately, his life. The Huffington Post captured the talk and put the video online, where it has been watched more than 8 million times.

New Hampshire has been hit especially hard by the heroin epidemic, with opioid deaths up 76 percent in the state in 2014, according to state figures. That same year, 325 people died from an opioid overdose, and since 2013, emergency room visits from heroin have more than tripled.

Bush was one of five Republican candidates to address the forum in New Hampshire, and not the only one to speak in personal terms about how addiction has affected their families or loved ones. As Bush shared his family's story, a camera crew for the campaign's ad maker filmed his remarks.

Christie talked about his mother's lifelong struggles with cigarettes and his close friend who died of an overdose. Carly Fiorina talked about losing her stepdaughter, Lori, who died of drug addiction.

And Gov. John Kasich of Ohio teared up as he told the story of how he had met a young woman who had ended up in foster care as both her parents battled heroin, only to become a Princeton graduate. (The woman, Jessica Hulsey Nickel, is now the executive director of the Addiction Policy Forum, the group that put on the event.)

Bush's remarks came as he outlined his drug control strategy Tuesday, describing a plan with four main elements — preventing drug abuse and addiction, strengthening the criminal justice system, securing the southern border with Mexico to stop the flow of illegal drugs, and improving treatment and recovery programs.

"For dealers, they ought to be put away forever as far as I'm concerned," he said, to applause. "But users — I think we have to be a second-chance country."

Noelle Bush's challenges played out in a public fashion, while her father was governor of Florida and her uncle, George. W. Bush, was president. After she was arrested, both the Florida and national newspapers chronicled her travails with headlines like, "Noelle Bush: A victim or princess?" and "Royal rehab: Nonviolent drug offenders should get the Bush treatment."

In 2003, Jeb Bush grew frustrated with a Miami Herald reporter, according to emails obtained by the New York Times through a public records request. "The only reason you wrote the piece, or were told to write the piece, is that my struggling daughter is the child of the governor," Bush chided the reporter. "It won't matter in the whole scheme of things but I wish the media would leave my daughter alone. It would make it a whole lot easy for her to recover and live a life full of hope and promise."

On Tuesday, Bush instead focused more on his daughter's triumph. "She is a courageous young woman," he said.

While some in Florida suggested his daughter received special treatment from the judge overseeing her rehab, who had ties to a group that had received a state grant, Bush said: "She got extra treatment, as it relates to the scrutiny, and it was a difficult time for my wife and for me."

The message seemed to resonate with attendees.

One audience member, Kirsten Doherty, said that Bush's credibility on addiction was enhanced by "telling personal stories about recovery, which always makes a difference."

"He seemed to be very educated about the topics, which is not true of all the presidential candidates," said Doherty, who works for a Massachusetts advocacy group focused on addiction recovery. "I have family members in recovery. I think it says something when people aren't ashamed to talk about their family experiences with addiction."