Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed an e-mail written by one of Jeb Bush’s aides about judicial nominees to Bush himself. The story has been corrected.
The new governor of Florida was feeling exhausted and beleaguered. It was after 10 o’clock at night, and Jeb Bush was still going through angry e-mails.
He forwarded a message lambasting him as “NO CONSERVATIVE” to two top advisers, noting that he was answering such missives personally in absence of a better system.
“Kind of scary and I am very tired,” Bush wrote in January 1999.
The message — part of a cache of tens of thousands of e-mails from Bush’s eight-year gubernatorial tenure — underscores two constants present from the beginning of his political career: the challenges he faced with conservatives in his own party and an intense, detail-oriented engagement as an executive.
In the messages, the new governor personally responds to job applicants, presses aides for details on invitees to events and engages with hundreds of constituents. The documents, which Bush has said he will release early next year, were obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request.
The messages provide an inside look at how Bush moved aggressively to overhaul areas such as education, taxes and health care between 1999 and 2007, a record now being closely scrutinized as he contemplates a White House bid. The e-mails depict him both as terse chief executive and a sometimes flippant writer who sprinkled his messages with “awesome,” “my bad” and “chill out.”
Bush has cast his decision to publicly release his electronic correspondence next month as part of his commitment to being “totally transparent” as he mulls whether to run for president.
“I’ll let people make up their minds,” he told a Miami television station on Dec. 14, noting that among the e-mails are “some funny ones, there’s some sad ones, there’s some serious ones.”
Still, all the e-mails Bush will release have long been available through a records request to the Florida Department of State. What’s more, the former governor is expected to release only documents already required to be made available under state law, which allows exemptions for legal communications and personnel matters, among others.
And the e-mails that he will release show a somewhat filtered version of operations within his administration, in part because Bush was keenly aware that his correspondence could one day become public.
In one December 1999 message to several aides, for instance, Bush cut off an exchange about vacation time by noting that their messages “might make a newspaper one of these days.” He added: “I suggest that you guys have a verbal conversation about it rather than create a public document. :)”
Bush’s team plans to post the e-mails on a searchable Web site early next year. The release has been touted as a symbol of Bush’s commitment to transparency, a record viewed skeptically by Florida open-government advocates.
“Governor Bush is releasing these e-mails that are currently public records to increase accessibility to them and make it easier for people to read through them,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said in a statement.
The trove of Bush correspondence available to the public is voluminous, both because of Florida’s expansive public-records laws and because of Bush’s proclivity for e-mail. An early adopter of the technology, the former governor was known for constantly pecking out messages on his BlackBerry and reportedly spent as much as 30 hours a week reading and sending e-mail.
Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist who worked in Bush’s administration, said that it was “not uncommon to get e-mails at the wee hours of the morning when only Jeb and roosters are up.”
Bush frequently responded to Floridians who e-mailed him directly with advice or concerns. He quickly wrote back to a woman who inquired about his wife’s birthday with the exact date.
When a man wrote the Florida governor to complain that he had become entangled in a messy domestic struggle between friends — “what should have been a messy divorce, seems to have turned into a criminal matter; with me in the middle,” the man complained — Bush forwarded the note to a staffer and asked her to look into it.
To a man who wrote “politicians make me sick, you make me sick,” Bush replied: “I am truly sorry you feel that way. Have a nice day,” adding a smiley face.
He regularly sought to calm conservative activists who wanted him to take the government further to the right. In December 1999, Bush tangled over e-mail with an antiabortion activist who blasted him for appointing a lawyer to a judgeship, because the lawyer had represented the owner of an abortion clinic.
Bush responded that he had not been told about the attorney’s history and, in any case, the lawyer had “received recommendations from many people who I respect.”
Nevertheless, Bush’s team followed up, after an aide e-mailed the governor and suggested the activist be sent a list of all nominees currently before him. “We have no litmus test for judges — we are open to hearing from all Floridians,” the aide wrote. But the aide added that the woman “appears concerned about the perceived lack of opportunity to provide input.”
The e-mails reveal a stunningly wide range of issues faced by the governor early in his administration. He received a “daily immigration update,” details of ongoing land disputes, predictions of funding for a Florida military installation, briefings on protecting the citrus industry, and memos about preparing for Y2K, the computer bug that was expected to hit at the new year in 2000. A note from a top adviser, Reg Brown, identified which judicial circuits in the state lacked minority and female appointees.
“I need to discipline myself to read more and work less,” Bush concluded in a February 1999 e-mail to Al Hoffman, a developer from North Palm Beach and a major GOP financial backer.
Hoffman asked the new governor about supporting a campaign finance reform bill introduced in the Florida legislature.
“Your brother thinks it’s the right thing to do also, as do I, although I think you are wise not to address it this year,” Hoffman wrote.
“I favor campaign finance reform that doesn’t put us at a disadvantage,” Bush responded. He said the bill introduced in the legislature “would do just that.”
In one exchange about Cuba, Bush took a small swipe at Bill Clinton, then in the last year of his presidency.
In a January 1999 note to then-Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), the new governor pledged to stand firm against any proposed liberalization of Cuba policy, including changes in the embargo. Bush then suggested that the next president could be tougher than Clinton, who was then mired in the ongoing investigation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“Forceful diplomacy can make a difference and we have had none for the last seven years and the current President is preoccupied with other matters,” Bush wrote.
Bush’s move to release his e-mails as he considers a White House bid echoes the pledge he took when he became governor in 1999. At the time, he vowed to make ethics and openness the hallmarks of his administration, saying his staff would be trained on how to comply with the state’s robust public-records laws.
“I am committed to a state government that will build public trust and confidence, increase and improve performance and do a better job of communicating with the public,” the then-governor said.
In the end, advocates for open government said his record was mixed. He got off to a rough start when, on his first day in office, Bush met privately with the leaders of the two legislative chambers without public notice.
“He actually violated the constitution on Day One,” said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, a watchdog organization that pushes for enforcement of Florida’s open-records laws.
Bush apologized and pledged to honor public-records requests. But media organizations and advocacy groups complained throughout his tenure that the public records they requested were delayed or not provided electronically.
At one point, the First Amendment Foundation prepared a lawsuit to challenge the administration’s compliance with the “sunshine” law. After meeting with the group’s attorney, Bush agreed to speed up the delivery of records.
“Jeb Bush wasn’t terrible,” Petersen said, “but he certainly wasn’t a champion.”
In a statement, Campbell said that Bush “complied with the Sunshine Law throughout his tenure in office.”
Alice Crites, Robert Costa and Steven Rich contributed to this report.