Politics

President Bush often denied Jeb’s bids for disaster aid

President Bush and his brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, were simultaneously in office for six years.
AP/File 2006
President Bush and his brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, were simultaneously in office for six years.

DALLAS — President George W. Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, one morning in late August 2003 when an 18-page fax arrived from the White House. His brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, wrote to say that his state had been experiencing a series of storms, tornadoes and, as he put it, “a persistent episode of moist winds.”

Some 10,000 homes and businesses lost power. Thirty-three homes were destroyed and damage was severe enough that the Red Cross set up two shelters to house 90 people. The Florida governor wanted his older brother to bail him out, declaring his state a disaster and allowing it to receive federal funds.

It didn’t take long for the president to render a decision: Denied.

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The bureaucratic back-and-forth between two powerful brothers — who were known to have a competitive relationship — reveals a peculiar pattern.

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Records show the president rejected his younger brother’s requests at a greater rate than the national average; there is no way to know if it was a fluke of the weather or further evidence of a well-known sibling rivalry. But other governors had more luck winning federal aid than Jeb Bush.

That snapshot of the Bush brothers’ relationship is one of several contained in documents held at the George W. Bush Library here, documenting communication between them when one was president and the other was governor of the country’s fourth-largest state.

President Bush denied six of Governor Bush’s 20 major disaster or emergency requests during the time they overlapped in office, according to Federal Emergency Management Data compiled by Richard Sylves, a professor at the University of Delaware. That represents an approval rate of 70 percent, compared with an average of about 85 percent for the rest of the country.

Jeb Bush enjoyed a much better batting average during the two years he served while Bill Clinton occupied the Oval Office. The Democratic president approved all six of Bush’s requests, never denying an application.

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“The review process by President Bush’s administration was fair and thorough, and the state kept in close contact with President Bush’s administration throughout the governor’s term,” said Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Jeb Bush.

But Michael Brown, the former FEMA director for George Bush, says the Florida governor may have been trying to stretch the limits of what could be approved.

When told about the 2003 application, which President Bush received at his ranch in Crawford, Brown said, “That sounds like something I would have turned down.

“That sounds like total B.S. to me,” he added. “Well, not so much B.S., but really? Florida? You’re asking for federal money in that situation? Heck, you have a bad thunderstorm down there and lose power for 10,000 people.”

Jeb has never been particularly close with his brother, who is seven years older. Even family members have in press reports described George Bush as “the family clown” who enjoys a good time, while Jeb Bush is “the serious one” who is more introverted.

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Two troves of records — one at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, the other in a huge batch of e-mails reflecting Jeb Bush’s time as governor — provide windows into some of their official interactions.

The documents show that the Florida governor had steady access to top officials in his brother’s administration. He was frequently in touch by e-mail with top officials, former officials say, far more than his counterparts at the time, like Governors Rick Perry of Texas or Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

Much of the documentation at the presidential library in Dallas is not available for public viewing. According to a catalogue of holdings, there are nearly 2,000 files related to Jeb Bush that have not yet been cleared for release. The Globe has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the library to release documents related to Jeb Bush.

About 15 percent of the sealed folders — more than any other category — are from the files of Karl Rove, the senior adviser. Rove declined a request for an interview to discuss why and what he was speaking with Jeb Bush about. Jeb Bush was also frequently interacting with his brother’s chief of staff, as well as first lady Laura Bush.

Jeb Bush also passed along job recommendations, according to both the Bush Library documents as well as Jeb Bush’s own e-mails.

In February 2003, for example, he called to push a scholar focused on Latin American policy for ambassador to the Organization of American States. But Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had already agreed to tap someone else for the position, according to an e-mail one of the president’s assistants sent to Jeb Bush’s chief of staff.

In one instance, in September 2004, a woman who had been displaced by a recent storm was struggling to find a two-bedroom apartment, and couldn’t reach someone from FEMA to see whether she could extend her hotel stay. She e-mailed Jeb Bush, who quickly passed the message to FEMA director Brown, who got on the case.

“Jeb and I developed a pretty good relationship,” Brown said in an interview. “He was a prolific e-mailer.”

Most of the public documents are about disasters.

“People always talked about how politics never affects a disaster. That’s just not true,” Brown added. “Every disaster involves one governor, two US senators, and at least one US congressman. . . . Politics is always a consideration in disasters.”

Just five days after George Bush was sworn in as president, Jeb Bush wrote asking for a disaster declaration because of two months of rain, flooding, and freezing that was hitting the agriculture and fishing industries hard. The president approved the request.

That started a string of others. He asked for nearly $24 million to help clean up Tropical Storm Allison. He wanted nearly $17 million to clean up after Tropical Storm Gabrielle.

Most of the letters sound like their contents were pulled from National Weather Service reports, as Jeb Bush outlines why each dire situation justifies federal assistance.

“A persistent weather pattern featuring deep southwesterly wind flow throughout the atmosphere developed over the Florida peninsula,” Jeb Bush wrote in June 2003. “Daily heavy rainfall episodes triggered by this stretch of abundant tropical moisture resulted in record flooding along several rivers and tributaries in this region.”

In that case it worked. He got more than $13 million.

But coping with a mosquito population “expected to explode” after a tropical storm? Denied. Funds for Florida’s shrimp industry after a winter of “temperature fluctuations”? Denied. A red tide crisis? Denied. The appeal to that denial? Also denied.

In one instance, the president initially checked “grant the request” but then scribbled it out and checked “deny.”

Brown said he can’t remember any instance of Jeb Bush using his connections to get any favorable treatment, or of President Bush urging any special treatment for his brother. But officials inside the White House did not have to be told that Jeb Bush was not only the president’s brother, but was the top official in an important swing state.

Over about six weeks in 2004, Florida was hit with four hurricanes, and President Bush granted each request for aid from the Florida governor. All told, Jeb Bush was able to secure $9.4 billion in federal money because of presidential declarations, two-thirds of which came from the four hurricanes in 2004.

“I like to think I treated every governor exactly the same. But did I feel like there was additional pressure, self imposed pressure? Yeah,” Brown said. “I don’t see that Jeb got favorable treatment. That said, we all knew who he was.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.