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Is Jeb Bush Exploiting His Daughter?

Photograph by Getty Images

It's that time of the campaign season where the candidates have to pull out all the stops on the road to New Hampshire and Iowa. The candidates who are perceived as weak will come out swearing they are tough on terrorism; those perceived as stiff or inhuman will overflow with human interest in order to grab voters by the heart strings.

Jeb Bush is getting a jump on this by publishing a preview of a speech he will give in New Hampshire, a critical battleground, as it's the first state to hold primary party elections. He's making good on an earlier promise to "show his heart" to the American voters by talking about his daughter's struggles with drug addiction.

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In an emotional post on Medium, Jeb Bush wrote that he knows the heartbreak of drug abuse, including the pain of seeing his daughter, Noelle, in jail and her public unraveling from drug addiction when he was then the Governor of Florida.

Any candidate that wants the nomination in the New Hampshire primary had better talk about drugs, whether he or she wants to or not. In August, the chairman of the New Hampshire governor's commission on drug abuse said that New Hampshire was "very, very much at ground zero for addiction," and that the state sees an overdose death "every day." The candidates stumping in New Hampshire have been advised to brush up on heroin addiction because it really, really matters to the residents of that state. A state government report indicated that the number of people admitted to state-funded treatment programs rose by 90 percent for heroin and 500 percent for prescription opiate abuse.

I would feel more comfortable if she was the one telling the story. After all, it's hers to tell.

It's wise politically for Jeb Bush to tackle heroin addiction in New Hampshire. And when millions of families have loved ones struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, it's good for this country for its potential leaders to grapple with what role our government should play in the battle against addiction.

But I can't help but wonder how his daughter feels about becoming a national cautionary tale. Is it OK with her that to make good on his promise to show us his soft, human side, her father will be stumping about the pain that her drug addiction caused the family? It's hard not to draw the conclusion that he's using her triumph over addiction ("Showing a lot of courage, Noelle graduated from drug court," Jeb wrote), to gain political traction in a hotly contested race.

The complexities of any family's dynamics are varied and ultimately private and unknowable, but Jeb Bush's wife and Noelle's mother, Columba Bush, told a reporter in 2002 that her daughter's drug addiction was the result of her being born into a political family.

If it's the case that the pressures of having an uber-political family pushed Noelle Bush into drug addiction, then isn't her father's capitalizing on her struggles all the more cruel? It's hard enough to stay clean from drugs and alcohol without having your father on a national stage reminding the universe how awful it was when you were using. In his heart-felt piece on the topic, he segued seamlessly from his personal struggle as a father of an addict to how, as governor of Florida, he helped reduce heroin use among youth in Florida by 50 percent. The whole point of his bringing up his daughter's incredibly painful past is to prove that he'll be the man to stop the scourge of addiction in this country. "As President, I will lead this country to dramatically reduce drug abuse."

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I don't think that Jeb Bush should hide his experience with having a loved one with addiction. He's in a unique position to provide hope and real help to families still in the mire of active addiction. But I would feel more comfortable if I knew he had his daughter's blessing before using her harrowing tale to ultimately win my vote. Actually, I would feel more comfortable if she was the one telling the story. After all, it's hers to tell. As it seems, he's just borrowing it to win the election.

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