The parsimonious explanation of Jeb Bush’s self-identification as “Hispanic” on a 2009 voter form is the explanation he offered himself: a simple slip of the pen, a clerical error whose only effect was to skew a government statistic by many zeros past the decimal point. Another ridiculous non-story, right?
Well, maybe not quite. Reporters who spend a lot of time with candidates often accumulate impressions of those candidates that they cannot convey within the norms and conventions of political reporting. You can’t just assert that a candidate is unintelligent, or a habitual liar, or casual with taxpayer money, or a phony consciously building a false image of themselves for political advantage. And oftentimes the proofs of those impressions are tedious, or complicated, or furiously denied by the campaigns’ publicists. And then a story will materialize that’s unimportant in itself—and maybe even exaggerated or unfair—yet which somehow enables the public to see what the reporter sees: Sarah Palin mangling the details of Paul Revere’s ride, Hillary Clinton’s little fib that she carried only one email device, Chris Christie overstepping guidelines on hotel costs, John Edwards’ $400 haircut.
Do you remember the details of the Paul Revere story? So big deal, Clinton had an iPad as well as a Blackberry. Guidelines are just that. Edwards’ haircut actually cost only $150; the other $250 covered the stylist’s travel costs to Edwards’ destination. Silly stuff in every case! And yet notwithstanding its silliness, somehow also true and interesting.
A stray check mark on a form doesn’t mean much—unless it reminds us that what was done inadvertently on one piece of paper echoes a recurring theme of a candidate’s life. In Jeb Bush’s own telling, the central drama of his life has been his self-alienation from his inherited ethnocultural identity and his assimilation through marriage to a new, chosen identity. This is something more than the typical politician’s Steuben Day glad-handing: eating kielbasa with the Polish voters and cannoli in Little Italy, wearing a kippah on Israel Independence Day and a green necktie on St. Patrick's. Just as George H.W. Bush turned his back on the Northeastern Republicanism of Prescott Bush by traveling to Texas and throwing his lot in with Goldwater conservatism; just as New Haven-born George W. Bush defined himself as the Texas-most of the Texans; so Jeb says he is not a WASP, but a bicultural man, raising a bicultural family. He emancipated himself from one identity by adopting another. As Karen Tumulty and Mary Jordan reported in the Washington Post in March, Jeb Bush did not introduce his future wife to either of his parents until the day of the wedding. In that marriage, Jeb Bush found a new self-definition that would shape his life in business and politics over the next 40 years—and that is now the basis for his ideas about how to reshape the nation. The kind of change that he experienced as emancipation, he now urges on the country, in order to keep the United States “young” and “dynamic”—favorite words. Jeb Bush will happily talk about almost any area of policy, but the topic that most engages him is the topic on which he wrote his pre-presidential-run book: immigration. To him, it is the solution to almost all American problems, as it was the solution to so many of his own.
That’s why the dumb story of the errant checkmark caught so much attention. It means nothing! But it reminds us of things that may mean a lot.