COLUMBIA, SC — Jeb Bush is a man who always seems barely contained by himself. When I arrive at his South Carolina campaign headquarters in Columbia, I find the former Florida governor hunched over on an iPad, one of the tech-savvy politico’s favorite Apple products. His right hand is holding the tablet while his left hand fidgets. I knock on the ajar door from right outside his office and it seems to startle Jeb.
“Oh man, Carl! You nearly gave me a heart attack, brother! Not that there’s anything wrong with my heart. It’s great. It’s doing great, baby,” Jeb says with a familiar chuckle.
“We’re gonna have a real hell of a day Carl. We got some great stuff. Really great stu–” Before Jeb can finish his sentence, his left nostril begins leaking blood. It’s hemorrhaging all over his iPad. He stumbles to wipe it off with a handkerchief, but just ends up smearing the entire screen in crimson.
“I’m sorry, this never happens. It’s real upsetting, I know. Not that I’m afraid of blood. Not at all,” Jeb mutters in a rapid tone as he begins plugging his nose with tissues.
Before I know it, Jeb’s younger brother/failed businessman/Unification Church spokesman/family cutup Neil Bush has entered the office.
“You nervous bleeding again, Jeb?” Neil says in a taunting tone.
“Now that’s not–I don’t do that. It’s just dry air today,” Jeb stammers defiantly.
“I just wanted to come in here to let you know you got this today. You’re gonna be on fire. Also, I have a new idea for an app, but we’ll talk about that later.”
“Neil, I’m not sure I can invest in one of your projects with all this going on,” Jeb says, replacing a blood-soaked tissue.
“Sure you can. Just remember, I’m the next one in if you fail.”
“Oh come on, that’s–oh, that’s not fair,” Jeb sighs as Neil walks away wordlessly.
“What does ‘the next one’ mean, Governor Bush?” I ask intrepidly.
“Oh it’s just a family thing. Aw, dangit, you know, every family has it. I don’t know why you’re asking me Carl. Don’t play dumb, that’s not fair at all,” Jeb pouts.
“I honestly don’t know, Jeb!”
“Well, if I don’t clinch the nomination, mom and dad are going to start calling Neil by my name. He’ll get to run next. He’ll get my inheritance, and they’ll let him rename my grandkids. But all families have stuff like that. That’s competition, baby. I love it, that’s the spirit that makes people in this country work so hard! Family traditions, brother, gotta have ‘em.”
Jeb’s other nostril is now spurting blood.
This kind of family environment is Jeb’s secret weapon. He draws strength from his prominent clan and their close friends. After a speech at a VFW in Charleston, Jeb is back at HQ. But as always, he isn’t alone. His mother and father are here, and they’re doting on their boy.
“I know every single mistake you’ve made,” says Barbara, still the strong matriarch at age 90.
“Now mom, that just, that’s, well everyone makes mistakes,” Jeb replies.
“You make the weakest kind of mistakes. That’s what sets you apart. If you lose, it’s because of your weak hands letting it all slip from you.”
“DISRESPECTED BY AN ITALIAN. THIS FAMILY HAS FALLEN,” bellows father George H.W., his wheelchair parked next to Barbara.
“Campaigns aren’t easy, I mean, we all know that,” says Jeb. “It’s never smooth sailing, let’s be fair here.”
“You had to fly in your brother to make all this right. He won this state very easily. The same probably won’t be said for you,” Barbara says.
Suddenly, a man of about 60 enters the room. On his neck, there’s a necklace of what look like small bones. He has a deep, piercing stare that I have to avert my gaze from.
“WINDPIPER, HELLO. I’M GLAD YOU COULD MAKE IT. SOUTH CAROLINA ISN’T EXACTLY THE MEKONG DELTA BUT YOU’LL FEEL JUST AS AT HOME HERE,” George says in a welcoming, monotone yell.
“Alpha affirmative, Golden Iguana. The second oldest boy, he’s always lacked the Komodo’s teeth. He can use the dentures of the ashes of The Company in this swamp. The Cuban will become known to us,” the man says, staring at no one in particular.
“Now, hold up just a second, why can he never call me by my name? I am not ‘the second oldest boy.’ I’m a former governor, and that’s just rude. That’s rude to my feelings,” Jeb says, having shot up from his seat with his hands on hips.
The man looks straight ahead at Jeb. His lips begins to curl, and Jeb immediately sits down.
“WE WILL RETAIN OUR FAMILY HONOR IN THIS TERRIBLE PLACE,” George says, happily.
It’s 4:45 PM in Columbia, and Jeb and his entourage are running late to a town hall event in Summerville. Long gone are the days of crisscrossing Iowa in a Gulfstream jet. After spending $350 million to clinch a crucial fourth place finish in New Hampshire, the campaign has needed to tighten its belt for the final push in the other 48 states. And that means Jeb is traveling by Uber.
Or so he tries. For the past 20 minutes Jeb has been glued to his iPhone, frowning at a little car on a street map.
“Oh, Gosh, he’s going in the completely wrong direction,” moans Jeb. “When is this character gonna turn around and get here? Oh, no, don’t go on the expressway! I’m starting to think this guy doesn’t even want to pick us up.”
“Hey there, Jeb, maybe you should give him a friendly little ring with that button there, ask him what his ETA is,” comes a soft, lilting Southern voice. It’s none other than bona fide Gulf War hero and Jeb endorser South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
“Well, Lindsey, you know I’m no good at talking to these cab drivers. Remember when we had to get to the Port Authority, and this guy takes us into Queens, and then the Bronx, then Jersey, all over, on a real joy ride, and when I said, ‘Sir, I’m confident this is not the most direct route to the bus terminal, and I am not going to pay another bridge toll,’ and the man just starts talking in that Middle Eastern language into his Bluetooth, and before we know it I’m paying another $100 ‘Windshield Surcharge?’ Well, heck, I don’t want another one of those situations.”
“At this rate this fella’s not gonna come, so I think you should cancel the trip and try to get another Uber cab.”
“No, no,” says Jeb. “They charge you for that. Best to wait it out. We’ll see who the bigger man is.”
“Oh geez, it says he just picked us up! Well that’s just swell.” Jeb squints at his phone. “Looks like they’re going to Savannah, Georgia. How much is this going to cost me?”
“Jeb, I got the Neon parked just five blocks down the street,” offers Sen. Graham. “How about I just go pick it up and drive us all to that town hall? Plus I got whole book of car games in the glove compartment, so we’ll have lots of fun on our little road trip.”
I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Lindsey Graham’s Dodge Neon, which is crawling down Interstate 26 towards Charleston.
Jeb and three of his campaign strategists are squeezed into the backseat. There’s an air of anxiety that we’re going to miss Jeb’s town hall, which starts in just ten minutes.
“Hey Lindsey, shouldn’t we go a little faster?” asks Jeb.
Graham chuckles. “Oh, dearie me, no. Speed limits aren’t recommendations — they’re the law. Yessir, fifteen below the limit is what I call ‘cruising altitude.'”
“But all these cars are passing us.”
“Oh, I’ll have the last laugh when I see them all gettin’ pulled over by the highway patrol. Oh, and who’s this speed racer passing us? Punch buggy pink, Carl.”
Graham hits me on the shoulder playfully.
“Heh, just a little game I like to play whenever I have company in the ol’ Grahamobile. You can play too, if you want, Carl. Carl?”
“I think he’s asleep,” says Jeb.
“All tuckered out already, and it’s barely sundown. Looks like Mr. Diggler can’t keep up with us two wild and crazy guys, huh, Jeb? Jeb?”
We fail to make it to the town hall thanks to Senator Graham’s precision-safe driving. The South Carolinian instead offers up his home to us, boasting that he has a veritable treasure trove of Scrabble and Boggle variants.
When we arrive inside the second-story bachelor pad I immediately notice Lindsey’s impressive firearm cabinet. My father Colonel Dig always told me that displaying firearms was a “a fool’s gesture.” “The goal is for them to never know you’re carrying until they have been perforated, Carl,” Dig Sr. would always say. However, this fellow veteran and esteemed Co-Chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus sees things differently.
“Oh man, that’s firepower, baby. That’s what I love. That’s what I’m talking about, definitely,” Jeb says while gesturing to the cabinet, shuffling his feet.
“We could shoot them if you’d like. We can do anything. My friends are always permitted to have a grand time here at Casa De Graham,” Lindsey says warmly.
Jeb glances at Lindsey, then me.
“Yeah, I mean, hell yeah,” raves Jeb. “Let’s fire those motherpluggers. L-let’s get locked and loaded.”
Lindsey has a range with targets set up in his backyard. Ever the competitor, our host has decided to have us all shoot one at a time, to tally up who’s the best shot in a fair, ordered manner. Jeb has drawn the short straw, so he’ll go first. If he wins, Lindsey has assured him his choice of movie in the entertainment room.
“Alright, yeah, let’s do it. I’ll show you a Florida marksman. Absolutely, baby,” Jeb says while loading his Remington 870.
His hand, which is fumbling with an ammunition cartridge, is covered in blood within seconds. Jeb drops the cartridge. His nose is bleeding profusely again.
“Ah man, no. No, not again. It’s this, this darn dry air. That’s why this keeps happening. This is just, this is no good. I can’t have this. This is, Carl, c’mon, you know I was going to shoot that gun.”
The whirr of his father’s wheelchair suddenly fills my eardrums.
“YOU ALWAYS DID THAT WHEN YOU SAW MEANS OF KILLING,” Bush 42 says in the distance. The rest of the Bush family has apparently decided to surprise their son for dinner!
“Another one of your feminine mistakes,” remarks Barbara.
“Ah, mom, no, there is nothing feminine about my mistakes. That’s plain unfair.”
How Jeb does in South Carolina depends on many factors. It depends on how his Super PAC Right to Rise spends its remaining $2.8 billion in campaign funds, how well Jeb can connect with moderate-leaning Republicans, and whether he can keep standing up to chief rival Donald Trump. But one question that’s settled is the love and unity the tight-knit Bushes have for their second-oldest son. If Jeb doesn’t make it, it certainly won’t be because his family didn’t love him enough.
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman.” Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at [email protected] or Tweet to @carl_diggler.