COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Don’t believe what the Bush presidents, father and son, told my good friend Jon Meacham in Destiny and Power, his book about the father’s long career.
George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush told Meacham that it was wrong that, in earlier years, Jeb was the favored of the four sons, the one the clan thought most talented, prepared and deserving of the chance to be a Bush president.
But I know that is true, because I was there in those earlier years, and I saw the adoration in the eyes of Jeb’s parents, especially his mother, Barbara.
By contrast, when I saw George with his parents at the family summer compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, the body language between son and parents was awkward.
Jeb was everything a Bush was supposed to be: tall, smart, studious, brave, well-educated. George was eldest, but he was short, mediocre intellectually and a troublemaker.
When Jeb ran for governor of Florida for the first time, in 1994, I traveled with him in a private plane that flew over the Everglades. He was a patrician environmentalist of the old school and gave me a detailed lecture on the water flow patterns of the swamps and the pollution problems in them.
I went with him to a small Spanish-language radio station somewhere in the hinterlands of Central Florida, and he spoke Spanish into the mic with astonishing ease and musicality.
Jeb had a diffidence about politics, which was charming in its way. He conveyed the sense that he was in it because it was a duty -- but in a good way. This is what one did. This is what Bushes did. They served the country as best they could.
I came away agreeing with the family: This guy was real and graceful. A Floridian could feel good voting for him.
Of course he lost that year unexpectedly -- even as his maverick, unlettered older brother pulled off the upset of the season to become governor of Texas and start the climb to the Oval Office.
Jeb had lost his moment -- and it was another family member who had done him in, however unintentionally. On election night, George H.W. and Barbara were surprised and delighted by their eldest son’s win, but spent more of their time worrying about the feelings of their second son -- the smart one, the sensitive one, the talented one.
Jeb never could catch up again. Timing is everything in politics, and after the passage of time and two controversial terms of his brother -- and the rise of a new, sterner conservatism partly as a result -- the timing for Jeb was always off.
But Bushes do not give up and Bushes hate to lose -- ever, at anything.
So, three years ago, Jeb quietly hit the GOP circuit, flying under the radar and speaking to small fundraising and organizing events that no one paid much attention to elsewhere.
At a private dinner with moderate GOP donors two years ago in Detroit, he astonished his table mates by working them hard on behalf of a candidacy they assumed would never happen.
At a prestigious and private Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington two years ago, Jeb appeared with his handsome and politically groomed son George P. Bush, now the Texas land commissioner.
Most assumed that Jeb was there to promote and introduce his then-37-year-old son as the heir to the family business now that Jeb would be stepping back a bit.
They were astonished to see Jeb working the influential crowd of corporate titans, senators, generals and former secretaries of state hard -- on his own behalf for 2016.
I always thought his heart wasn’t really in it, that he was doing it because that is what Bushes do, and he had not taken his turn -- even if it was out of turn. I always thought he knew the odds were long given the changes in politics and the fact that he last ran for office in 2002. I always thought the sharpies among the consultants who were draining his $100 million PAC account knew all this and didn’t care because they wanted the cash.
I’m sure they didn’t tell him what they really thought.
Nor would members of the family. Instead, they pitched in with all the strength they could muster at the end. Feeble and ancient though he is, President George H.W. worked the phones, even calling South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Jeb’s behalf. George W. flew in from Texas and made the rounds dutifully, reminding everyone why they may have liked him personally but didn’t regard him as much by way of a president. And Barbara came, and worked harder than the rest, for her dear son Jeb.
It’s easy to make fun of these people these days. The WASPs of old are almost comically out of place and out of time.
And one should not be too starry-eyed about their achievements and their beliefs. Yes, they were in it to “serve,” but that service helped keep them rich and give them power, and was largely in service of the corporate-political consensus.
That George H.W. is revered for raising taxes just a bit is not so much a measure of his courage as the smallness of our politics.
But, as Meacham points out in his excellent book, there is much to be said for such families. They have been an important, and even indispensable, part of the American story forever. We are, after all, a country based more on family life, faith and free markets than on the prerogative of government. We do, after all, derive our concept of nationhood from the people up, and that means family.
In colonial and later times, the Bushes were Episcopal priests. Then Samuel Bush of Columbus, Ohio, made a bundle in railcar couplings, and in the early 20th century became the first Bush in politics as a founding leader of the National Association of Manufacturers back east in Washington.
His son, Prescott, became a U.S. senator and a talked-about name for veep. His son was George H.W., who begot George and Jeb, who begot the land commissioner of Texas.
It was painful to watch Jeb on Saturday night. He clearly could not wait to get off the stage and back into what he called “private life.”
I give him credit for secretly preferring it, but I also give credit to his family for rearing him to be willing to risk losing.
As the Bushes would say, Godspeed. And wait for George P. to go national.
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