Letters to Jeb Bush | The New Yorker


thank you,

Adam

I sent the e-mail late in the afternoon, while working at my family’s antiques store. An hour later, a reply arrived in my in-box:

You need to simply ask for help and give people an out.

Jeb Bush

I staggered. My intimate journal, the repository of my deepest shames, had talked back to me. The overhead track lighting in the store’s gallery felt blinding. I replied automatically, without thought.

I will try that, thank you so much for your advice!

best,

Adam

Only then did a wave of thoughts and doubts and fears crash on my brain. Had Jeb read my other e-mails? The romantic confessions? Had I sent him a description of that weird Technicolor sex dream I’d had?

I thought, too, about what he had written. The advice was genuinely helpful. And it clarified, in my mind, why I had first written to him. Jeb Bush had an easier out than anyone I could have contacted. Friends feel obliged; therapists get paid; priests have a divine calling. Jeb Bush does not need to answer my e-mails.

But, now, he had. Oh, God, I thought. I’ll never write to Jeb again.

Recently, I began to write a new novel. I didn’t experience a great epiphany—just a glimmer of the same spark I remembered from years ago, the fun of making art. I began waking up early to write. And, for the first time, I felt able to confess to people that, a few years ago, on my first try, I had written a novel that nobody wanted. I started writing an essay about it—this one.

As the draft took shape, I realized that I would need to figure out whether I had actually been corresponding with Jeb Bush all that time. I wrote to the usual e-mail address and, this time, I requested an interview. He replied the next day.

I am not sure how i can help you with your essay since i didnt do anything!!! Happy to speak or do it via email but i dont know what value i can add.

Jeb Bush

I told him that I’d love to talk anyway and that we could do it on Zoom. He was more flexible and accommodating than members of my immediate family: less than a week later, a little more than six years after I had sat in a laundromat in Vermont with egg on my sneakers, I put on a tasteful sweater and sat down at my kitchen table. My laptop screen flashed, and there he was, calling in from “Jeb’s iPad (2).” The iPad’s camera was at a low angle, and there was a world map behind him on the wall. His curtains were mostly closed against the sun. He was wearing a black polo shirt. “Hello,” he said.

I did my best to recount my side of the story. Jeb explained that he first started giving out his e-mail address in 1999—in fact, he’d written a book collecting the e-mails he’d received as governor of Florida. He self-published it, an approach I’d never considered for my own work. When he shared the e-mail address during the Presidential campaign, he went on, something shifted in the messages he received. “I remember a lot of stupid people—or people with stupid thoughts, let’s put it that way, trying to be cool with their friends, probably.” He seemed to have become a minor cult figure among nerds on the Internet. “For a while, there were a lot of kids with Cheeto stains on their T-shirts, basically.”

I peeked down at my sweater in momentary concern. He noticed, and we both laughed. “I don’t get as many now,” he said, with what struck me as a hint of wistfulness. I asked, a bit timidly, whether he remembered responding to my e-mail about asking people for help.

“No, I don’t remember saying it, but that’s pretty good advice,” he said. He had no memory of me whatsoever, it turned out. I told him that his e-mail had been useful. I also told him that I had generally found it easier to contact him when I was in crisis, rather than talking to my friends.

“I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful,” he replied, sounding firm. “I think you might want to ask your best friends for advice.”

“Is there someone you go to for advice?” I asked.

“I go to my wife, for sure. And I go to my older brother for certain things—my much older brother, George W.” He reflected on this a bit more. “I generally figure things out myself,” he said. “I don’t know. That’s a little weird. I haven’t thought about that.” He stared off into the middle distance. “I’m going to have to start thinking about that now.”

I tried to describe how, when my novel hadn’t sold, my public self became severed from my private identity. He said he hadn’t had that experience, that his private and public selves remained unified when he was running for office. He added that this “may explain why I wasn’t a great candidate.”

Then, he flipped the interview and asked me a question. “So, you tried,” he said. “Had you not tried, how would you feel?”

“Worse,” I said, instantly.

“Yeah—or maybe not,” he replied, surprising me. “You tried, and a lot of people don’t, and you should feel quiet comfort about that. And look, man, life goes on. It’s a journey, man. It didn’t happen,” he said, seemingly pivoting back to his electoral failure without my prompting. “What am I supposed to do? Go in the fetal position and suck my thumb and hold on to my little blankie and say, ‘Woe is me’?”

I pulled up the first e-mail I wrote to him, from the laundromat, and read it aloud. I asked him what he would have written back to me had he noticed it.

“I’m glad I didn’t say this at the time,” he said, “because you sound like you were in a deeply pessimistic state. I would’ve said, ‘Put your big-boy pants on, dust them off, and get back into the game, man.’ ”

“It’s good that you didn’t say that,” I agreed. Far more useful to my life, it turned out, was Jeb’s silence. It left me room to gradually work through my failure.

Our chat on Zoom ended pleasantly. The next day, a package arrived at my apartment in a Priority Mail envelope, with a Florida return address. Inside was the self-published book of Jeb’s e-mails. It had come out, I saw, in October, 2015, shortly before I’d written to him the first time. It’s an odd, dryly recursive book, with a forward by Jeb’s wife, Columba.

There was also a note:

Dear Adam:

Nice talking to you today. Here is Reply All that I mentioned during our conversation.

Sincerely,

Jeb.

I never responded. ♦



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