Get ready for Bush III
John Ellis ‘Jeb’ Bush insists he doesn’t want to run for president. Don’t believe a word of it
The next presidential election is 26 months away and already the parties are fretting about it. Barring a disaster, President Obama will be the Democratic candidate, but history is not treating him well. When he took office, the millennial hopes raised by his candidacy bumped into the realities of a long recession and two hard wars. He was just another politician, after all, not a messiah.
But if the Democrats have come down to earth with a bump, the Republicans are still trying to shake their post-2008 hangover. John McCain lost badly and won’t be back. His running mate Sarah Palin, the Alaska maverick, is loved by some Republicans but hated by others. Party managers know that she is a polarising figure, unlikely to attract voters from the electorate’s big grey middle, the dull folks who are essential to winning campaigns. That’s why so many Republican eyes have alighted on John Ellis Bush (‘Jeb’), son of one president, brother of another, and a seasoned politician in his own right.
There’s much to be said for Jeb (born 1953). He is the only Republican in history to win two consecutive terms as governor of Florida (in 1998 and 2002). He would have won again in 2006 but the state constitution limits governors to a maximum of two four-year terms. If he runs for president he can compete strongly for votes that don’t come easily to most Republicans. His wife Columba was born and raised in Mexico, he favours a liberal immigration policy, and he speaks fluent Spanish.That gives him a boost with the ever-growing Hispanic population, much of which normally votes Democrat.He opposed drilling off the Florida coast, which makes him seem wise and environmentally sensitive to Floridians suffering from the terrible BP spill in the Gulf. His education initiatives are admired across the spectrum and have drawn sympathetic notice in the black community, which is usually another hard sell for the GOP. He was popular in Florida right to the end of his term.
On the other hand, there’s much to be said against Jeb, starting (fairly or unfairly) with his relatives’ shortcomings. His father promised no tax increases, then imposed tax increases, then lost to Bill Clinton. By the time his older brother left office, early last year, it was difficult to find anyone willing to say a kind word about him.‘W’ plumbed new depths in presidential unpopularity polls and left office with the economy in a tailspin and unemployment vaulting upward.
Another problem is that Jeb tells interviewers wherever he goes that he is not a candidate for president — he says he’s just a business consultant. The coy fellow who poses as a non-candidate until he becomes one is a familiar figure, so these disavowals can be taken with a pinch of salt. On the other hand Jeb may indeed shrink from the ordeal of a two-year campaign, especially if its prospects of success have been torpedoed beforehand by the legacy of an inept brother.
Consider the history of presidential brothers.A few were eminent figures in their own right, such as Milton Eisenhower (18991985), who became a university president at age 44, ten years before Dwight’s election. Another was Robert Kennedy (19251968), attorney general under JFK and then a presidential candidate in 1968.A third was Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832) who, like Jeb, was still going strong after both his father and his brother had left the White House.He became chief justice of the Massachusetts court of appeals. Far more presidential brothers, however, have been misfits and ne’er-do-wells, some of whom caused their Oval Office siblings to squirm. John Quincy Adams’s brother Charles (1770-1800) shamed an eminent family and drank himself to death at the age of 30.Theodore Roosevelt’s brother Elliott (1860-1894), who was regarded as the smart one of the pair dur-
the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk ing their childhood, was likewise unable to put down the bottle, jumped out of a window in a botched suicide attempt, and died of a seizure, aged 34. His only claim to fame was to be the father of Eleanor, Franklin Roosevelt’s wife and the famous first lady of the Depression era.
Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy (19371988) promoted an evil-tasting beverage, ‘Billy Beer’, often appeared drunk in public, urinated on an airport runway in front of a crowd of journalists, and then tried his luck as a lobbyist for one of the most hated men in the world, Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi.He told a Senate investigating committee in 1980 that he was not ‘a buffoon, a boob, or a wacko’, a denial some of the senators found unconvincing. Bill Clinton’s halfbrother Roger (born 1956) served a year in prison for using and dealing cocaine, and was also busted for disorderly conduct, conspiracy and reckless driving.
Now think about the Bush brothers. When they were growing up George W, the oldest, was a burden to his parents, a terrible student who got in to Yale only by family string-pulling, and then made a hopeless mess of it. He wriggled out of the Vietnam war draft, failed in several careers, and was well on the way to alcoholism before Jesus intervened to sober him up. Jeb, on the other hand,was his parents’ pride and joy, an exemplary student at the University of Texas who graduated ahead of schedule with highest honours, and went on to an almost unbroken series of career successes. History has played an ironic joke on the pair. The embarrassing brother won the presidency and the responsible one got stuck outside.
Another person who might be on Jeb’s mind as he decides what to do next is a presidential wife —Hillary Clinton, whose recent experiences include a whopping cautionary tale to all presidential favourites.What could have been more certain, as 2008 began, than that Hillary would win first the Democratic nomination and then the presidency? Everyone assumed she had a lock on both but then, as if from nowhere,along came Obama, who upstaged her in the primaries and seized both prizes. She has had to swallow a lot of gall over the years, and perhaps never a bigger dose than when she smilingly supported Barack after his nomination.
As Jeb thinks about these various people and problems, the temptation to run for president, and the temptation not to run, must be racing in his imagination just about neck and neck. He is tough enough to say no but smart enough, at the same time, to recognise that he’s still probably the Republican with the best chance to win. If he does, he will be the first person in history to be the third person from a single family in America’s top job.
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History, Emory University.