Jeb Bush distinguishes himself from brother in handling of hurricanes

Story highlights

  • The nadir of George W. Bush's presidency was a moment where the younger Bush shone as governor of Florida.
  • Jeb Bush argues that his emergency management style in those storms was one of his credentials for becoming president.

(CNN)Jeb Bush's campaign might have approached the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with great trepidation. George W. Bush's handling of that natural disaster was one of the lowest points in his presidency -- and its commemoration yet another instance where Jeb Bush would face the long shadow of his family name.

But ironically, the nadir of George W. Bush's presidency was a moment where the younger Bush shone as governor of Florida, leading an effective emergency response and managing the chaos of the eight hurricanes that hit the region in 2004 and 2005.
After struggling with how much to distance Jeb Bush from George W. Bush, and as the candidate himself has shown a clear reluctance to criticize his older brother, the Bush campaign Wednesday sought to highlight Jeb's response to the storms that dogged his sibling. Though Jeb did not overtly criticize his brother's response to Hurricane Katrina at an event along the Florida Gulf Coast Wednesday, the contrast was implicit.
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    George W. Bush's bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, was etched on the national consciousness in a 2005 photograph showing the president peering out the window of Air Force One, surveying the devastation in New Orleans from 5,000 feet. This week, Jeb Bush's campaign produced a video showing the then-Florida governor "not only prepared" as the hurricanes descended, but "physically on the ground, at the scene," as one emergency responder described it.
    Looking to get ahead of the Bush vs. Bush comparisons that have dominated the 2016 media narrative, the campaign also released the former Florida governor's ebook account of the storms that touched down starting in August 2004 -- Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne within six weeks, and then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita the following year. They also used Jeb Bush's emails from that period to show that he was involved in minute details of storm response.
    At Wednesday's event in Pensacola -- chosen, the campaign said, because it was the epicenter of Hurricane Ivan's impact in 2004 -- Bush argued that his emergency management style in those storms was one of his credentials for becoming president.
    "Florida was ready," Bush told voters in Pensacola, noting the small changes his state had made in the lead-up to the storms, such as creating additional emergency shelters.
    He noted that Florida first responders were often involved when the storms hit other states, like Mississippi, even harder. "I said, 'Go ... help them,'" Bush recalled of days that he has said tested not just Florida's mettle, but its soul.
    By highlighting the hurricane anniversary, the former governor also sought to reframe his 2016 battle with Donald Trump, whom he now trails in polls, as a matchup between talkers and doers. That's the argument that his allies hope will ultimately win over voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire as they take a closer look at the real estate mogul's record.
    "Look, there's some people running that are really talented about filling the space, about saying big things. They think that volume in their language is a kind of a version of leadership," Bush said in Pensacola. "Talking is not leadership. Doing is leadership. And that's what we need."
    In a sharpened stump speech that he delivered with gusto, he also seemed to swat back at Trump's charge over Twitter that he is a low-energy candidate unfit for the travails of the presidency.
    "I've learned about leadership through trial and error. I've got tire marks on my forehead to prove it," he said at the event in his home state. "You learn these things if you're all in. You learn these things by experience. You don't talk about things on the sidelines. We need leadership in Washington, D.C., high-energy leadership."
    Even detractors approve of Jeb Bush's handling of hurricanes in his home state, according to Matthew T. Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida.
    "It was probably perceived as the high water mark of his time as governor during the hurricanes by both Republicans Democrats," Corrigan said. "He was very accessible. He was on TV twice a day at every hurricane; he was speaking in English and in Spanish. So that really stood out."
    And there were political payoffs from that.
    In 2004, when the four big hurricanes came through, "I don't think there's any question that Gov. Bush's performance helped his brother win the state that fall," Corrigan said. "And he actually won it by 5 percentage points, which in Florida in the 2000s is a landslide."
    Look back at Hurricane Katrina one decade later
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    Bush's emails from that period offer a window into his decision-making style in the face of natural disasters.
    He skipped the Republican National Convention in 2004, even though his brother was being re-nominated, because a storm threatened Florida, which he reflected on in an email.
    "I will not be going to NYC but in no way should that be seen as a lack of fortitude to work for the Prez's reelection," he wrote. "Now, we have Frances approaching our shores so I will be doing double duty."
    When asked by a reporter whether he was seeking advice on handling the succession of storms, he wrote back: "Come to think of it, I have not gotten any advice on my job from outsiders. It has been from experience dealing with past intense occasions (9-11, even political campaigns), learning as I go and just (plain) instincts. In addition, I have a great staff of people who have worked very hard these last six weeks."
    His experience presiding over the storms, he said in an email, had taught him "when to be partisan and when not to be."
    "Storms don't hit just (Republicans), or (Democrats), or independents, they hit all Floridians; As Governor it is essential that I respond the same way."
    In late 2004, responding to emailed questions from the St. Petersburg Times about how he would decompress after the storms, Bush was asked to recount what his biggest takeaway had been from hurricane season.
    "I learned," he replied, "that whatever successes we have had, they are never final. We need to learn from the experiences of the hurricanes to be better prepared for the next season and the ones after that."