Jeb Bush was nervous before one of his first campaign speeches ever.
The speech wasn’t in Iowa, or Texas where his family made their name, or even in Florida where he made his. It was at the El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico in 1979, before the birthday celebration for Gov. Luis Ferré. Bush was running his father’s presidential campaign in the new primary in Puerto Rico.
Luis Guinot, who served in the Office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and wrote the speech for Bush, recalled that there were problems with the speech.
“I put the applause lines too close,” the now-retired, 80-year-old Guinot told BuzzFeed News from Puerto Rico. The lines — “¡Estadidad ahora!”, or statehood now, and “We hope that my father will be the president that will put the next star on the American flag!” — were winners to the pro-statehood crowd, even if the applause made them hard to hear. They loved him, as Guinot told him they would.
At the time, Bush told those close to him and even interviewers that politics wasn’t for him. He was just doing his father a favor.
“When he came down, he was very young — Jeb did not like it,” said Guinot, who let Bush live in his apartment in the run-up to the primary and remains close to the family. “He wasn’t forced to be there, but he certainly would have liked to be somewhere else.”
But Puerto Ricans involved with the campaign at the time remember Bush, who spoke fluent Spanish, as an effective campaigner — especially in the kind of politicking the island relishes: authentic, high-energy, walking the streets, talking and shaking hands, music never too far away. And as the former Florida governor launches a presidential campaign, Guinot believes it was this early experience and success that began to change his mind about a career in politics.
“When you’re going out there, and people are cheering and clapping, it gets your blood going,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s what got him started. The success he had down there, the success he had with the people, he thought, ‘I can do this.’”
The Puerto Rican primary in 1980 was a novelty, the first of its kind.
The island presented, and still presents, an unusual political situation: Although U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections. But the territory sends 14 delegates to the national convention. And in 1980, George H.W. Bush was looking for all the delegates he could find.
Weeks before the Puerto Rican primary, he had narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan in Iowa — a surprise. (“Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum,” Bush predicted that night.) Reagan skipped Puerto Rico for New Hampshire, where he would ultimately deliver an iconic performance in that state’s debate and begin his decisive march toward the nomination; Bush, meanwhile, put some attention toward the island where his son had been dispatched.
There, Jeb Bush became affectionately known as “el joven Bush” — “the young Bush.”
“He made an immediate connection with the people that he met,” said José Rodríguez Suárez, who took Jeb Bush around the island. Suárez was a college student at the time, and designed an iconic logo for the campaign (along the top, it read “Bush ‘80,” with “PR 51” along the bottom). Later, he would become the longest-serving deputy secretary of state in Puerto Rico.
“There was a genuine affection for Jeb, there was no cultural barrier whatsoever,” he said.
The ‘80 Bush campaign, managed by Jeb, was similar to many that have followed: the emphasis was on making Puerto Rico the 51st state, and turning the island from an afterthought into a real political entity. Bush’s campaign focused relentlessly on the issue, even creating a jingle about statehood, as did his opponent in the primary, Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker. “Since this is the first primary, Puerto Ricans have to show the rest of the country that they understand the national political game,” Jeb Bush said in a Puerto Rico interview. “The whole thing is a step toward statehood, OK?”
The Bush campaign installed high-profile supporters like Julia Rivera de Vincenti, a friend from the elder Bush’s United Nations time, who signaled through her close friendship with Puerto Rico governor and patriarch Luis A. Ferré that Bush was the candidate to support, even as Ferré remained publicly neutral.
“They started earlier than we did,” recalled Antonio Monroig, who served as Howard Baker’s campaign manager on the island, the counterpart to Jeb Bush, whom he said he befriended along the trail, often in the same towns and at the same meetings with him. “That allowed them to get people out in the towns and presidents of the parties.”
But a significant difference for George H.W. Bush was his son.
“They identified with his Hispanicity,” said Dr. Antonio Longo, 75, a longtime figure in the statehood movement on the island. “Baker was just another Anglo politician.”
Hernan Padilla, then the mayor of San Juan and now a Florida resident, said Jeb Bush immersed himself in big crowds on the street and in rallies.
“That meant a lot to the people in Puerto Rico because the people pay attention to those who speak their own language, and I don’t just mean Spanish, but people who understand them,” he said.
And part of that was also Bush’s wife, Columba, who is Mexican-American. As his family has come under increased scrutiny with a fast-approaching presidential campaign, much has been made of her interest, or lack thereof, in the incessant glare of politics. While she chose to remain under the radar during Bush’s political career, in 1980, it was not uncommon to see her speaking at events in Puerto Rico or by her husband’s side.
“We all knew he married a Hispanic, we played that up, too,” said Guinot, of Columba who is often described as humilde, or humble, by those who knew her then or remain on friendly terms with the family. “Voters reacted to Columba being Hispanic. She came in, she was one of us.”
Bush won decisively on Feb. 17, 1980, but not without drama. As the camps sat waiting for the returns to come in on election day, a Baker official took a call from someone from the statehood party who asked how they were doing, someone familiar with the exchange said.
“We’re losing,” the official said.
When the official got off the phone, they told members of the Baker campaign that the advice was to vaciar las listas if they wanted to win.
Jeb Bush overheard the term and asked what it meant. Election fraud, he was informed — “emptying the lists” and counting voters who had not voted.
“What do we do?” he asked. He was told not to worry, they were going to win.
The Bush campaign won with 60% of the vote to Baker’s 37%. It was “the first step toward statehood,” Jeb Bush told the Washington Post.
Of course, 35 years later, the Bush family might be beloved by statehood supporters, but the island is no closer to becoming the 51st state. Padilla said that while statehood may not become a big issue during the 2016 election, Bush will say he supports it. “From what I saw in the 1980s, from what I see now and the relationship I had with his father and mother, Jeb Bush supports statehood,” he said. “He knows what the Puerto Rican people want.”
Of course, in 1980, Jeb Bush contended it was that jingle — Me gusta George Bush porque quiere estadidad ahora (“I like George Bush because he wants statehood now”), complete with an attractive Puerto Rican girl singing it — that closed the deal at the end.
“Kids were singing it all over the place,” he said.