Honoring the Family Name : * Culture: 'I'm not interested in politics,' says Columba Bush, the President's daughter-in-law. Still, she knows how to campaign for a cause: her native Mexico.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Columba Bush does not embrace the spotlight that enshrines her family.

"I always have been a private person. I like to be alone. When I was a little girl I used to listen to the radio and just be by myself."

She supports her father-in-law's career, but his chosen profession holds little personal interest.

"I am not interested in politics at all. At home, around the dinner table, we never discuss politics."

But here she is, lunching at Olvera Street, talking about the painful divorce of her parents, the strength she derives from her family and her campaign efforts for George Bush.

Columba Bush, 37, the Mexican-born daughter-in-law of the President of the United States, is touring the country to talk about her role as co-founder of the Children's Cultural Education Fund of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Folklorico officials hope the Bush name will help raise money for free performances and other cultural opportunities for children in selected cities, including Los Angeles.

Bush knows her role as political wife and daughter-in-law--she has been married to the Bushes' second son, Jeb, for 18 years--brings attention to her cause.

She recalls a touching conversation she had with the First Lady about her childhood, about growing up in a divorced family and being ostracized in her Roman Catholic community because her father had abandoned them. It was 1988, during the height of the presidential campaign, and her estranged father, looking to exploit his daughter's name, had just made the tabloids in Mexico and the United States.

"I told my mother-in-law that I thought I wasn't going to be able to campaign anymore. She asked me, 'Is there a reason, Columba?' " Her eyes fill with tears.

"I said, 'Well, Mrs. Bush, it is difficult for me to speak in public about something very painful.' She said, 'Columba, I understand your reasons. It was not your fault that you were abandoned. If you want to campaign or if you do not, it's OK with us. We want you to know we love you very much.' "

"For three days I thought about what I was going to do," Bush says. "This was my reality and this was my life. I realized that I had to be strong, that I had to keep on going."

Bush decided to continue campaigning, especially in Latino communities, where her presence and bilingual skills were highly valued. Later that year, at the Republican National Convention, she took the podium to second her father-in-law's nomination. She had prayed to the Virgin of San Juan for strength. After much prayer and thought, she would give up her Mexican citizenship to vote for George Bush.

"That was a difficult decision to make because up until then I didn't see any necessity to change my citizenship. My husband wanted me to stay as a Mexican citizen, and the whole family has always respected my decision. I changed my citizenship to vote for my father-in-law."

Says Lucila Schmitz, Columba's older sister, confidante and lunch companion: "That's the only way she has changed. She is the same person that she was back in Mexico when we didn't have any money. She has a lot of faith in her religion, in her family. She is very simple and keeps a low profile."

For almost all of her married life, Bush says, she has preferred to remain in the background as a wife and mother to her three children: George Prescott, 14, Noelle Lucila, 12, and Jeb Jr., 7.

She also realizes that being a Bush means being thrust into the spotlight from time to time, being asked about her past as well as her hopes for the future.

Born in Leon, Guanajuato, in Central Mexico, Bush and her sister leaned on each other as children. "We came from divorced parents in a small town in Mexico. Society resents that," Bush says.

Columba, Lucila and their mother--who lives with Lucila in Miami, a few streets away from Columba--pulled through tough times when there was barely enough food to put on the table. Everyone in the family worked.

"Columba gave me emotional strength back then. That is why today we are still very close," says Lucila as the two begin to reminisce about when they met their husbands-to-be.

Columba was 16 when she met Jeb, then an exchange student studying in Leon. Her sister had met one of Jeb's best friends, John Schmitz, who had already been to their home to meet "my mother, the cat, the bird, the whole family," Bush recalls.

One afternoon Columba joined the couple as they went for a downtown drive in Lucila's car. They pulled up to a curb at the Plaza Principal, where Jeb was hanging out with a few friends.

"I was sitting in the back seat when Jeb looked into the car and said, 'Oh, I am falling in love with her,' " she recalls. "It was love at first sight for him. He admits it," she says laughing. "It took me two days to fall in love with him."

Soon, Jeb asked his friend, John, to take him to Columba's home. "He came to visit me at my house and he met my mother, the cat, the bird, the whole family," Columba says. They dated for three weeks before Jeb, then a senior at Andover Academy in Massachusetts, had to return to the States.

"For three years we wrote. He came back to see me every six months. It was very romantic," Bush says.

In 1974--three years after Lucila married Schmitz--the couple exchanged vows. Columba was 20 and Jeb, 21. Raised an Episcopalian, Jeb converted to Catholicism. They lived in Texas, Venezuela, Miami and Tallahassee, where Jeb was Florida's secretary of commerce in the mid-1980s. Today, her husband is in real estate in Miami.

When they were married, George Bush was well established in his career in politics and public service, working as chairman of the Republican National Committee and then as chief of the U.S. liaison office in Beijing.

"My relationship with my in-laws and my husband is just as normal as a normal family can be. What do we talk about? We talk about the children," Bush says.

The President and First Lady call their grandchildren often, "except not that often during a national crisis." They invite the children to spend time with them at the White House and in Kennebunkport, Me., where the Bush clan will gather next month for a traditional reunion--to fish, swim and play tennis and baseball.

Bush says it is not uncommon for her oldest son--at the bequest of his famous grandfather--to attend such events as the Army-Navy game "and sit at the 50-yard line with Secret Service agents around him."

But being the grandchildren of the most powerful man in the country also has its drawbacks, Bush says. "Children can be cruel," she says, referring to her children's schoolmates, who occasionally say hurtful things.

"My children were born into this," she says. "They will always be the grandchildren of the President and First Lady of the United States," which is why she and her husband try to make life as normal as possible for them. "My husband and I try to let our children just be children.

"The President and Mrs. Bush are very simple people," Bush adds, recalling a favorite story.

Two years ago, the President invited Columba and Lucila to dinner at Camp David. The only other people at the table were the President and Mrs. Bush and the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and his wife.

"It was very special. It's just the kind of thing my father-in-law will do," Bush says. "We talked about food, children and grandchildren. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life."

Her life has had a "happy beginning" as a Bush.

"I have three wonderful children. My husband is an absolutely wonderful, perfect husband and a father, most of all," which she says makes her realize "more of what I was missing as a child."

Her mother and sister travel with Columba to Mexico whenever possible. And she says she is honored--through the projects in which she is involved--to promote "the name of Mexico to the highest."

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