Monday, April 16, 2007
BY BETH REINHARD
He was Florida's celebrity governor once, overrun by media, staff and bodyguards wherever he went. Now, like a rock star no longer on stage, Jeb Bush has become the subject of Elvis-like ''sightings'' on Miracle Mile and Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables.
Today, he slips away to Brazil, in his first trip to the ethanol-rich nation since he launched a crusade to promote the bio-fuel in December. It was one of the only hints he gave of his future before leaving office.
Bush moved to a tony Coral Gables condo in January, embracing the jet-setting lifestyle afforded the kin of two American presidents with the everyday tasks of a private citizen who drives his own car and retrieves his mail from a UPS box.
''It's about as tough to see him now as it was when he was governor,'' said Chuck Cobb, a longtime Miami supporter.
Bush, a former real estate developer who missed many of the boom years while in public office, has quickly rebounded from eight years of a civil servant's salary.
He jumped on the public speaking circuit, earning about $50,000 per appearance through a speakers' bureau that represents luminaries such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and humorist Dave Barry. He joined what could be the first of several corporate boards, Tenet Healthcare, which will pay him $65,000 a year, plus bonuses for attending meetings and travel expenses.
His real estate broker's license has been updated with his new address. Asked about persistent rumors that he will pursue a job in investment banking, he said, ``I'll let you know when it happens.''
Known for being wary of the media, the 54-year-old Bush does his best to keep a low profile.
He has vacationed with his family, dined privately with former heads of state at the Biltmore Hotel and lost some weight. Without any fanfare, he co-hosted a screening of Bella, an award-winning film about a Mexican waitress who faces an unplanned pregnancy, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.
Friends and former staff guard Bush's privacy as aggressively as they once touted his agenda. Donations to his educational think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future, are no longer publicly disclosed online. The group's executive director declined to respond to e-mails and phone calls inquiring about the governor's activities.
''He is in Miami, enjoying life,'' said Zachariah Zachariah, a Fort Lauderdale cardiologist who serves on the foundation's board.
Bush's public appearances coincide with the people and issues he cares most about. He attended last month's dedication of the Scripps Research Institute, a private biomedical research organization he helped recruit to Florida Atlantic University. Next month he is slated to honor his former lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, at the Historical Society of Central Florida. He will address the upcoming Business Future of the Americas conference in Santiago, Chile.
Back in February, he helped promote the Teach for America program, which sends college graduates to needy school districts.
''For the first time in my adult life, I have the chance to pause and do something to make a living and enjoy it,'' he told students at Jose de Diego Middle School in Miami. ``I kind of like just being able to get in my car and go.''
Last month, he addressed the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, pitching ethanol to skeptical but powerful industry executives. He and the ex-agricultural minister of Brazil and the president of the Inter-American Development Bank comprise the InterAmerican Ethanol Commission, which helped steer President Bush's recent biofuel alliance with Brazil.
The commission aims to increase the use of ethanol to help wean the U.S. off petroleum from hostile nations, stimulate trade with Latin America and protect the environment from global-warming pollutants.
''The governor has been an integral part of those conversations with the state department,'' said Cobb, who works with the commission. ``He has been asked by 100 different civic associations to be involved, and he has decided that this and some education initiatives are going to be his highest priority.''
Bush wants to wipe out an import tariff on Brazilian ethanol and touts a ''15 by 15'' goal to hike U.S. consumption to 15 million gallons by 2015. He will meet with top government officials and industry leaders tomorrow and Tuesday in Sao Paulo and Brasilia.
''He was treated like a head of state when he was governor, and I have no doubt that as a former governor he will still be treated that way,'' said Jorge Arrizurieta, vice president of the commission, who will travel with Bush.
Bush is a political icon at a time when none of the leading presidential candidates can lay claim to the GOP's conservative wing. Political operatives for the campaigns take pains to point out their Bush ties, and Mitt Romney name-dropped him as a potential vice president.
When Bush spoke at a January gathering in Washington called the Conservative Summit, he received three standing ovations.
''I get a ton of questions on what he's doing,'' said U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, general chairman of the national Republican Party. ``Now that it's clear he's not running, people are still curious.''
Miami Herald staff writers Jane Bussey, Lesley Clark and John Dorschner contributed to this report.