Jeb Bush and Elian

Grad school wasn’t as edifying or entertaining — or my brief spell in real world journalism — as living in Miami during the apogee of the Elian Gonzalez nightmare. Stories about dolphins bringing the young lad home. The Virgin Mary appearing over the waters. Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia holding hands in prayer circles. After a night of drinking my mom shook me awake before sunrise. “They’ve taken Elian,” she said. I swear to God that at the time I thought she meant the dolphins and the Virgin Mary. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas averring, jaw trembling and political career over, “If their continued provocation, in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy’s parole, leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible and specifically Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton.” In a county used to being the laughing stock of the nation, this nonsense had consequences: Al Gore lost the presidency by 547 votes.

One person escaped unscathed. Exercising a restraint to which he’d say bye-bye during the Terri Schiavo farrago five years later, Governor Jeb Bush let the feds hang:

In Bush’s eyes, the government couldn’t give permission for Schiavo to die. With Elián, things were different. The government could return a little boy to live with his father in Cuba.

During the Elián case, Bush stayed above the fray in Tallahassee, while still closely following developments in Miami. Emails from Bush’s eight years in the Governor’s Mansion show that during the most tense periods of the five-month standoff, Bush received frequent updates from Florida Department of Law Enforcement brass. One was so detailed that it noted what a host had said on a Spanish-language AM radio station. The former governor’s emails were re-released last month and made searchable by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

The emails show that Bush, who famously included his BlackBerry in his official portrait, was unusually engaged with the public, responding quickly and thoughtfully to the many people outside politics who wrote him regularly, often to criticize.

The day after the feds took Elián, Molly Volz of Pensacola accused Bush of playing politics. “If the President was Republican, you most likely would have supported the action.”

“Please do not have one of your aides respond,” she wrote. “No response is better.”

Bush answered himself: “I am saddened by the federal government’s decision to take Elián by force out of his Miami home when there was significant progress being made to reach an accommodation with the father.”

Of course this is politics, and I would have expected Lawton Chiles to crow too if Elian had happened under President Bob Dole’s watch. Let’s remind people for the record.

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