Let me finish tonight with the He-Coon who changed history.
Maybe you saw the news today that former President George H.W. Bush apparently wants his son Jeb to run for president in 2016. It’s news because his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, seemed to throw cold water on that idea a while back when she said, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”
But his son, Neil Bush, is now saying, “If you asked Dad the same question ‘Should Jeb run?’ he’d say yes.”
And if you listen to those who know the family, you know why George H.W. Bush might feel this way. Because of all his sons, it’s supposed to be Jeb–and not George W.–who the old man always saw as his political heir, the one who would take his place on the political stage.
And 20 years ago, it looked like that was about to happen.
Bush Sr. had lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 and immediately stepped out of the spotlight and into a quiet retirement. Then Jeb stepped up in 1994 to run for governor of Florida. Florida was a redder state back then and ‘94 was shaping up as a brutal year for Democrats. Plus, the incumbent Democrat of Florida–a man named Lawton Chiles–was pretty unpopular. So Jeb was supposed to win, polls put him ahead, and once he won that race he’d be on his way to the national stage just like his father wanted.
And that’s where the He-Coon comes in. The He-what? Well, I don’t know if you remember Lawton Chiles or if you remember this moment from the November 1, 1994 debate, but it changed history:
“My mama told me, “sticks and stones will break my bones,” but names will never hurt me. But let me tell you one other thing about the old liberal. The old He-Coon walks just before the light of day.”
When Lawton Chiles said that, Jeb Bush stood there looking confused. He had no idea what Chiles was talking about. But a certain type of native Floridian did. The He-Coon is a character of old, rural Florida lore, the wisest member of a pack of raccoons.
And Lawton Chiles was one of those old-time Floridians. He liked to brag that he spoke “cracker.” And for the rest of that campaign, he traveled around Florida calling himself the He-Coon and forging a cultural connection with voters who were a lot more familiar with the way Lawton Chiles carried himself then the way Jeb Bush did.
And when election night came, there was a surprise in Florida. Even as a Republican landslide swept across the country, Jeb Bush lost in a squeaker to Lawton Chiles. The He-Coon pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year.
There was another surprise that same election, a few hundred miles away in Texas where Democratic Governor Ann Richards, whose personal favorable rating was still at 60%, was upset by George W. Bush–Jeb’s older brother, the son that George H.W. Bush hadn’t figured as his political heir.
And so it was Texas Governor George W. Bush who then got to spend the rest of the ’90s building a national profile and readying a run for president in 2000 while Jeb stayed in Florida to mend fences and take another shot at the governor’s office. And he did end up winning it in 1998, but by then he’d been lapped by his brother.
The rest, of course, is history: the disaster of W’s presidency, the tarnish to the Bush name, the sense that maybe the country’s had enough Bushes… But apparently the old man is still holding out for Jeb–and wondering how differently it all might have played out if it wasn’t for that pesky He-Coon.