It’s always the young ones who can’t quite navigate the family business.
Despite his $120 million in cash and hyper-organized campaign, Jeb Bush out on the campaign trail looks like a man who’s not entirely sure he wants to be there, or what his message should be—which may help explain why this professional politician is still far to the rear of none other than Donald Trump, who’s running for office for the first time. And in that respect, perhaps, Bush, who didn’t seem to be having fun at the Iowa state fair last weekend and who sounded uncertain of himself at the Republican debate earlier this month, resembles no one more than another scion of a famous political family who ran for president 35 years ago and looked similarly conflicted, even bewildered, on the stump: Teddy Kennedy.
In 1980, well before he went on to become the lion of the Senate, Kennedy finally succumbed to years of public (and perhaps private) pressure to carry on the legacy of his two dead brothers and assume his rightful place in the White House. Kennedy boldly decided to take on a weak incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. But in one of the most famously incoherent moments in modern political history, when Roger Mudd of ABC News asked the usually golden-tongued senator the simple question, “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy couldn’t answer in a way that made sense. It was the beginning of the end of his campaign. Ironically, Teddy didn’t regain his voice fully until he bowed out and the pressure was suddenly off. Then he delivered one of the greatest speeches of his life, ending in the “dream will never die.”
It’s fair to ask whether Jeb Bush is running for comparable reasons—not necessarily because he’s got that unquenchable fire in the belly, but because, well, it’s just what Bushes are supposed to do. In The Kennedy Imprisonment, author Garry Wills made that argument about the Kennedy family: that they were prisoner of the family ethos. So too of the Bushes: they are expected to be part of the family business.
And within that business, the younger siblings often find themselves playing catch-up. The late Ted Kennedy was the baby of his well-known family, spending much of his life eclipsed by two older brothers, trying to live up to their legacy. Jeb, seven years younger than brother George W, tried to explain his motivation for his first (and unsuccessful) gubernatorial run: “I want to be able to look my father in the eye and say, ‘I continued the legacy.’” And yet as speculation about 2016 began to grow in recent years, even Jeb’s mother, Barbara, said at one point that he shouldn’t run, telling NBC in 2013: “We've had enough Bushes.”
Thus, much as Teddy Kennedy often seemed to be running from his notorious past—Chappaquiddick among other things—as well as the differences between his reputation and that of his brothers, it often looks as if Jeb Bush can’t quite outpace that Bush legacy, especially his own older brother’s. W’s eight years as president were, to put it charitably, tumultuous. Arguably, two of Barack Obama’s signature accomplishments were cleaning up the messes his predecessor left him: the US war in Iraq and the collapse of the economy in 2008. When he left office, W’s job approval rating was down to 25 percent, according to Gallup. A poll of professional historians had 61 percent calling him “the worst in the nation’s history.”
It may be for these reasons that Jeb dithered so long before finally entering the race. And now, no matter where he goes or what he says, W’s political ghost often appears to be haunting him. In Iowa in recent days Jeb continued his attacks on Obama and Hillary Clinton over their Iraq policy, especially the decision to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011. But he was heckled over, of course, his brother. “Your brother signed the deal!” a heckler shouted.
“It could have been modified, and that was the expectation,” Bush said. ““Everybody in Iraq and everybody in Washington knew that this deal could have been expanded. And now what we need to do–”
“Your brother signed a bad deal!”
“–now we have to do something else,” Bush ended.
How do you live that down?
Ted Kennedy was 15 years younger than Jack, watching in wonder as his brother took the nation by storm, rising with extraordinary rapidity from member of Congress to Senator to President in 1960. Jack was a celebrity, bringing glitz, glamour and style to the White House. He was also immensely powerful, especially in his home state of Massachusetts, so much so that, merely for the asking, he was able to get Ted a job—as a US Senator.
When Jack was killed in Dallas, only three years into his first term, it was then brother Bobby’s chance for the limelight. Five years later, that chance ended when Bobby was shot in a Los Angeles ballroom, just after winning the California presidential primary.
That left it up to Ted.
People don’t like to speak ill of the dead, especially those who are cut down in their prime. Both Jack and Bobby had their flaws, of course, but in the aftermath of the assassinations, their reputations were almost incandescent, to many, even saint-like. Some saw their deaths as fundamental turning points in American history. What would America have been like had Jack and Bobby lived? No Vietnam? No Watergate?
That made for a heavy burden for Ted and it was in this context that he struggled and often failed. At times it was ugly. There was Chappaquiddick and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, the boozing and escapades in Palm Beach, the broken marriage and the never-ending stories of infidelities and sexual philandering. (In one notorious 1989 incident, Ted was photographed having sex on a motorboat, prompting Alabama senator Howell Heflin’s gibe that he was pleased Kennedy had “changed his position on offshore drilling.”)
So too there were the political missteps. Almost from the day Bobby died, Ted’s name was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He demurred in 1972 and then again in 1976. When he finally did take the plunge in the 1980 election, Kennedy lost badly, but did enough damage that he helped hand the election to Ronald Reagan—clearly not the desired outcome of a man seen as a liberal’s liberal.
The themes of Kennedy’s story play out, both in comparison and contrast, between brothers Jeb and George W. Unlike Ted, thought by his family perhaps to be the least likely to become a senior statesman, it was Jeb who was regarded as the father’s political heir. George W may have been older, but he was a frivolous gadabout, a constant partier and heavy drinker (until he quit cold at age 40) who made his home in Texas. Jeb was the serious one, wonky even, engrossed in detail. Thus his parents were dismayed when as Jeb in 1994 made ready to run for governor of Florida, George W announced he would do the same in Texas. They were even further dismayed when W. won and Jeb lost. On the phone with W, dad HW mourned Jeb’s loss. “Why do you feel bad about Jeb?“ he is said to have asked his father. “Why don’t you feel good about me?” It reads like an old Smothers Brothers routine: “Mom always liked you best!” And from the stories that have been told, that may well have been the case.
There’s another comparison between Jeb and Ted as well. When Bobby died, Teddy, ready for it or not, became the family patriarch, the man in charge of a sprawling political empire. When Kennedy was having his bad days—say, at Palm Beach—it wasn't only his fortunes that suffered, but those of the entire clan.
Right now, George HW is patriarch for the Bush family. But at 91, that won’t last forever. Who then takes over? One imagines both George W and Jeb would see themselves as candidates. As former president, George W probably would have won that battle. But what if Jeb succeeds in his quest? He’d have at least an equal claim—and the likely favor of his mother. By this light, the presidential election can be seen in the most narrow of terms: a squabble as to whom brings the Bush family forward into the next generation.
But there’s more than sibling rivalry at play as Jeb travels from town to town, seeking his party’s nomination.
Bush père did the family proud. Successor to Ronald Reagan, he softened the hard edges of the Hollywood star’s conservatism (“a kinder, gentler nation“), conducting himself with caution and probity, a model of bi-partisanship. Indeed, as rancor has grown in Washington, HW’s standing has soared even higher. Even Democrats look back wistfully at HW as the kind of Republican they could support.
W, to continue the narrative, ruined all that. He was impulsive and careless. He seized on 9/11 as an excuse for war and bellicosity, dividing the world into two camps (“Either with us or you’re with the enemy“), ruining America’s reputation around the world. (Indeed, the nation’s standing had sunk to such depths that a relieved Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to new president Barack Obama merely because—to be blunt—he wasn’t Bush.) He failed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He put in place the ruthless policies that led to the horrors of Abu Ghraib. He lost the House and Senate in 2006 as Americans soundly repudiated his reign. He was run out of office with the financial system crashing around him.
Jeb, it seems, is acutely aware of this. He’s uncomfortable talking about his brother’s presidency. “When you love someone as your brother or your dad, it's not easy for me to say, just kinda throw them under the bus to make myself look better,” he told ABC news shortly after entering the race. “I just can't do it.“ His campaign signs merely say “Jeb!” (the exclamation point perhaps a rebuttal to claims he lacks charisma); “Bush” is nowhere to be found. Asked by reporters to name positions on which he differs with his brother, he refuses to take the bait. “I've got no interest in that.” And in May he tied himself in knots trying to answer a simple question about whether he would have invaded Iraq, first saying he would have and then, after days of criticism, relenting and agreeing that “knowing what we know now…I would not have gone into Iraq.”
Some of this may be overblown. Voters may feel nostalgic for George HW now, but they certainly didn’t care much for him back in 1990. He was a one-term president after all, and left office with approval ratings of 29 percent—not much better than George W. Indeed, W’s numbers, while bad, are in line with those of other presidents, including Truman (22 percent) and Carter (28 percent). “Worst president ever?” Maybe. But they also used to say that about Truman. Moreover, W’s numbers have started to improve: Recent polling from CNN finds a majority now holds a favorable impression of the ex-president. Some of that improvement may simply be due to the passage of time. Some as well may be that—anti-Bush partisans notwithstanding—his eight years were not really an unmitigated disaster. There were triumphs as well: No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, the AIDS relief program, Bush’s healing speeches in the aftermath of 9/11 and the TARP bailout—the last crafted in conjunction with the incoming Obama administration.
Like Ted Kennedy (about whom an opponent famously remarked, if his name “were Edward Moore” instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, his candidacy “would be a joke“), Jeb Bush knows he wouldn’t be where he is right now but for the family—and that includes his brother. Thanks to W, the nationwide fundraising network remains alive. And thanks to W and the fascination with the brother-to-brother comparison, Jeb’s name remains front and center—all of which is why it’s more likely than not he is the nominee in 2016.
Still, it makes for a complicated mess. Jeb knows he needs to stand on his own, “to be my own man,” as he says. His father in 1998 offered this advice to both W and Jeb: “Chart your own course, not just on the issues but on defining yourselves.” With W still fresh in voters’ minds, that’s sometimes tough to do. But Jeb would be smart not to explain and measure himself in comparison to his brother. As with Ted Kennedy, you shine brightest when you finally manage to escape the shadows.
This column was first published in Politico Magazine on August 19, 2015.