Guest Notes

Bush notes

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

‘Most dynasties are defined and circumscribed by region,’ goes a 2001 op-ed in the Washington Post. ‘The Roosevelts rode as high and far as the national fortunes of New York State. The Tafts go as far as Ohio takes them. The Browns’ fate is married to that of California. The Kennedys acquire an outlier state or three, but Massachusetts remains their feudal domain. Not the Bushes. Their success is found in an essential rootlessness.’ But that’s not the half of it. It isn’t the Bushes’ collective rootlessness that has made the family so successful: it’s how easily they lay down roots wherever they find themselves. There’s little the way of an overarching narrative to the House of Bush’s meteoric rise. It’s as though these remarkably successful individuals just happen to be related. The Bush family emerged as a political force with Connecticut senator Prescott Bush. Prescott was a WASPy, moderate Republican of the old New England establishment – an establishment that was put to the sword by Irish Catholic Democrats like the Kennedys. In traditional Yankee fashion, Prescott had a strong sense of noblesse oblige. He was quiet about his wealth and treated politics as a vocation. His son, President George H.W. Bush, bears a striking resemblance to his father both physically and professionally; and yet the Reagan Revolution he helped command made Republicans like Prescott redundant. The GOP became more conservative and its base shifted South – which is just where H.W.’s sons found themselves. George Walker ‘Dubya’ Bush rose to prominence as the governor of Texas. Dubya personifies the rootin’-tootin’ cowboy-statesman. He ditched his family’s high church Episcopalianism (Anglicanism) for Methodism and was once part owner of the Rangers, Texas’s baseball team. Despite having been born in Connecticut and educated at elite New England institutions, few Southerners doubt the sincerity of his acclimation: his ranch in Crawford is so hot and dusty that someone raised in Kennebunkport, Maine couldn’t fake any affection for it. Whether by design or by chance, Dubya is a true, blue Texan. Likewise, John Ellis ‘Jeb’ Bush, who served as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, took to that state like a house on fire. Jeb’s family – his Mexican-born wife Columba and their three half-Latino children – so accurately represent the changing demographic makeup of Florida. If his marriage was politically expedient, that never entered into the equation: Jeb and Columba met when he was on a service trip for prep school. He’s ever eager to tell the story of how he spotted a young lady across a plaza in León and immediately fell madly in love. Some years later he converted to Catholicism and practices his faith devoutly, which aligned him with the Republican Party’s incredibly powerful pro-life lobby. Bush loyalism in turn became a national phenomenon like nothing that had come before it. Some Bush loyalists are powerful figures in the Republican donor class, like New York Jets owner Woody Johnson. Johnson went above and beyond his typical duties as a fundraiser by door-knocking for Jeb in the Iowa primary – miserable work usually undertaken grudgingly by volunteers. But most are just ordinary people for whom the Bushes are emblematic of modern American conservatism. Former South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham, a longtime ally of the Bush family, said at a rally for Jeb in the Palmetto State, ‘Bush values are South Carolina values.’ Such a statement would’ve been patently ridiculous had it been said of any political dynasty in American history outside their home state. Not the Bushes. Yet Jeb placed fourth in South Carolina and subsequently bowed out of the race. Pundits were eager to herald ‘the fall of the House of Bush’. They shouldn’t be so hasty. The Bushes are nothing if not versatile, and 2016 was only their first serious setback. South Carolina rejected Jeb while embracing Dubya – many voters apologetically informed the former president on Twitter and Facebook that they loved him, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for his brother. Indeed, Jeb’s failure feels like something of a fluke: before the Donald threw his hat into the ring, he was heavily favored to clinch the Republican nomination. The anti-establishment rallying-cry ‘No more Bushes!’ proceeded Trump’s candidacy. It’s an unusual sentiment, considering how much value voters placed on executive experience in the 2012 primary. Jeb waved off the ‘establishment’ label by saying the ‘front row seat’ he had of two consecutive Republican presidencies was to his advantage – an argument that Republican voters would’ve accepted just four years ago. Even those eulogizing the Bush dynasty aren’t willing to count out Jeb in 2020, especially if Trump wins the nomination this year but fails to beat the Democratic nominee. Running for president in 1920 after World War I, Warren G. Harding promised a ‘return to normalcy’ – ‘America’s present need is not heroics, but healing… not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate’. The desire for such a return to the status quo ante bellum might sweep Republicans after four or eight years of the Donald, and wonkish old Jeb Bush would be the man to deliver. Even if Jeb’s moment has passed, there’s a new generation of Bushes already poised to seize the public stage. His elder son, George Prescott, only 39, currently serves as Texas land commissioner. His younger son, Jeb Jr., followed his father around on the campaign trail. I crossed paths with him more than once; he’s unusually friendly to journalists, considering how unsympathetic journalists have been to his dad. It’s the sort of irrational gentility that’s endeared three generations to the Bush family. So who knows? After spending a few years with Trump, the bristly New York business mogul, Republican voters may look for a good-natured, arch-patrician in the Bush mold. At least one member of America’s last great political dynasty will be waiting in the wings.

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