Jeb Bush is height vain. He is vain about his height. But like so many people captivated by their own beauty, it’s not quite enough for Jeb to tower over more than 95 percent of American males. Behind the height bravado is a nagging anxiety that he's not quite tall enough.
Bush is six-foot-four. That’s really tall. Many people would be perfectly pleased with that; recently on Yahoo Answers, for instance, a woman's query about having a six-foot-four boyfriend elicited this response: “the taller the man the cooler he is. your friend has a great height and it is ideal for a man. so dont worry about this, live happily.” But Jeb has no height chill. Instead of confidently hanging around his height peers, Bush seeks out small people to stand next to so as to look even taller. On Wednesday, Bush tweeted a photo of himself standing next to CNN reporter Dana Bash, who is five-foot-two. Just a funny little height joke, right? Wrong. It’s part of a longstanding and disturbing pattern.
Bush chose a wife, Columba, who is five feet tall. In multiple profiles of Florida’s former first lady, she has told the story of meeting Jeb and being disturbed when he stood up to say hello. "He was so tall," she told the Miami Sun-Sentinel in 1999. "I said, `Uh-oh.'" It was still an issue decades later. "It's weird," Columba told the St. Petersburg Times in 1998. "This many years and I'm still not used to it. I have to wear high heels all the time." A 1999 Miami Herald profile said Columba “all but disappears in his arms.”
When Bush is in a situation in which no short people can immediately be found to stand next to, he stands on his tippy toes. At the second Republican debate, Bush was caught standing on his tip toes, making him look as though he towered over Donald Trump, who is almost as tall at six-foot-three. Bush said he was merely trying to spot his wife in the crowd. A likely story.
Where does Bush get his height vanity? There is significant evidence that like so many neuroses, it's rooted in a troubled home. A notorious 1987 Newsweek cover story questioned George H.W. Bush's masculinity under the headline “Fighting the Wimp Factor.” The then-vice president suffered from “a perception that he isn't strong enough or tough enough for the challenges of the Oval Office.” Now, H.W. had been the director of the CIA. You might imagine having controlled all the best secrets in the whole world would have been the obvious way for Jeb to prove his father's vigor and virility. But no. Instead, Jeb told Newsweek, "I've made money betting people my dad is taller than Ronald Reagan."
It’s clear in the article that height defensiveness ran deep among the Bushes. H.W. said voters were frequently surprised by his six-foot-two frame. "'We thought you were a little short guy,' they tell me. I hear it over and over and over again," the elder Bush said. Perhaps Jeb took Newsweek too literally when it warned, “The public servant whom voters perceive as shorter than he is must show that he stands tall enough to be president of the United States.” Voters, it's turning out, care about more than a candidate's height.
Jeb shares a height fixation with more family members than just his dad. At the 2001 White House Correspondents Dinner, George W. Bush joked about the stress his mother felt raising so many sons: "For a while, she thought she was too tall and walked like this." The image at right flashed.
But the Bush height complex is wrapped up in more than just how the family members physically measure up. It's also about character. And until now Jeb has had to stay crunched up in a little box to avoid making his brother look little. In 2003, The Washington Post reported, “George W. calls Jeb my ‘big little brother’ during appearances (Jeb is five inches taller), and Jeb dutifully plays the goofy sidekick. He introduces George as ‘my older, smarter and wiser brother.’” Did he mean it ironically? The Post doesn’t say so, though it does note that Jeb once revealed his brother was “caught finger painting with something other than his fingers.” During the 2004 presidential campaign, the New Yorker noted, "Jeb has always been the brainiest, most articulate male member of his family—he suffers from none of the dyslogia that afflicts his father and his brother. It is important that Jeb not overshadow George W. on the campaign trail."
Now Jeb is free to is free to stand up straight, unfurl his long limbs, and stretch past his brother to soak up the warm rays of public adoration. The question is whether he can ever climb high enough.