Former Florida governor Jeb Bush used his prime-time spotlight at the Republican National Convention Thursday to pass a symbolic torch to his party’s nominees, defend his brother, and urge the nation to rededicate its promise of an equal education for all.
But before he began his prepared remarks, he said he had to get something off his chest — the defense of his brother, former President George W. Bush.
“He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe,’’ he said to loud applause. “So Mr. President [Obama], Mr. President, it is about time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. . . . In the fourth year of your presidency, a real leader would accept responsibility for his actions, and you haven’t done it.”
Bush spent most of his 15-minute speech focused on the need to reform education, an issue he has devoted himself to since retiring as governor in 2007. Working through the Foundation for Excellence in Education, he has pushed for expanding school choice and classroom accountability.
“If we want to continue to be the greatest nation on the planet, we must give our kids what we promise them: an equal opportunity,’’ he said. “That starts in the classroom. It starts in our communities. It starts where you live.”
He interspersed his remarks about education with introductions of teacher Sean Duffy from Del Valle High School in Texas and Frantz Placide, a 2006 graduate of Archbishop Curley Notre Dame in Miami, who had received an opportunities scholarship.
“There are many reasons to believe America’s future is bright, but also reasons to worry,’’ said Bush, noting that the United States ranked 17th in science and 25th in math among the world’s 34 most advanced nations.
He pointed to other education reform-minded governors, gave a shout-out to Gov. Rick Scott, and said that through their efforts “more students are reading on grade level, passing rigorous college prep courses and graduating from high school.”
“Gov. Romney gets it,’’ Bush said. “He believes parents — regardless of zip code or income — should be able to send their child to the school that fits them best. That has set him against some entrenched interests. There are many people who say they support strong schools but draw the line at school choice.”
He admonished school choice opponents: “I have a simple message for these masters of delay and deferral: Choose,’’ he said. “You can either help the politically powerful unions. Or you can help the kids.”
Bush has repeatedly scolded the party officials and warned they could lose the Hispanic vote for a generation. He urged them to shift from the punitive approach to immigration to one that welcomes diversity and legal immigration. At Bush’s urging, the campaign used the convention to shift course, inviting Hispanic leaders and governor to give prime time speeches and showcasing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Although the platform committee included a hard-line immigration plank that calls for mandatory E-verify programs, an end to so-called sanctuary cities and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at public universities, the convention speakers steered clear from the tough rhetoric.
On Thursday, Bush said the Romney campaign had listened. “I’m pleased with the convention and the understanding of the Romney campaign that tone does matter,’’ he told The Miami Herald.
Bush’s appearance also cemented his role as elder statesman and marked a new chapter as a Romney surrogate.
The former governor was also the sole of voice of the Bush family to appear on stage. Neither his brother, the former president, or his father, former president George H.W. Bush, attended the convention. They opted instead to be featured in a video shown to the crowd on Tuesday night.
"My dad can’t walk. He’s 88,’’ Bush told The Herald. "My brother is smart enough. He could be a target of the Obama hit machine, so he’s keeping a low profile."
Jeb Bush’s sons, George P. and Jeb Bush Jr., were in attendance throughout the week, either serving as surrogates for Romney or advocating for stronger Hispanic outreach.
Bush acknowledged he spent the week significantly raising his national profile, appearing on more network, newspaper and cable interviews than the media-reticent celebrity has ever done.
“I was asked by the Romney campaign and I accepted more press interaction than I normally do,’’ Bush said Thursday. “I want them to win.”
But, he added, “after tonight, I’m going back into the bat cave.”