Jeb Bush Has Learned the Wrong Lessons From His Family Tradition

The struggling candidate ought to emulate his tremendously impressive father. Instead he is defending the lackluster legacy of his big brother.

Adrees A. / Reuters

Jeb Bush may be his own man, as he has repeatedly insisted to interviewers. But in his place, practically everyone would be influenced––even in spite of themselves––by knowledge of what their father and big brother did in similar situations, especially given that every likeness and reversal will prompt commentary. As voters weigh whether to entrust the presidency to a third member of the Bush family, it is proper to reflect on the legacies of George H.W. and George W. Bush.

Those family ties could be a strength. Surely Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have gleaned insights and wisdom about being president from their unusual proximity to the office.

The question is whether Jeb’s family ties would influence him for better or worse overall. That depends, in part, on whether he sees his family’s legacy more clearly than those in his wing of the Republican Party, who tend to underrate Bush 41 and overrate Bush 43. Perhaps that political reality helps to explain why Jeb has shown no inclination to emulate a tremendously successful father, even as he defends a big brother who has easily done more to tarnish the family legacy than anyone else.


Whatever explains Jeb’s failure to embrace his father’s successes or to distance himself from his brother’s failures, the spectacle is confounding to anyone who steps back from America’s irrational political culture to survey the facts of Bush family history.

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The elder President Bush was a spectacularly impressive man from the start. After a privileged childhood complete with a chauffeur who drove him to grammar school, he attended Phillips Academy, graduating in a 1942 ceremony where Henry L. Stimson, the secretary of war, urged the elite graduates to attend college rather than enlisting. To the consternation of his parents, George H.W. signed up for the Navy anyway and was bound for the Pacific war mere weeks after his 18th birthday.

“He became the war’s youngest Navy pilot and flew Avenger bombers,” Walt Harrington wrote in one of the finest profiles of Bush. “His plane was hit. With smoke and flames pouring from his engine, Bush still dropped his 500-pound bombs on an enemy radio station before bailing out into the ocean. His two-man crew was killed. After hours at sea, Bush, sick and vomiting, was saved from Japanese gunboats by a U.S. submarine. He was a bonafide hero, the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. He would rack up 1,228 hours in the air and 58 combat missions.”

After excelling at Yale, he moved to Texas, where he became rich in the oil business thanks to a tireless work ethic, undeniable talent, and lots of inherited East Coast connections. While in Midland, he found time to start a local YMCA and community theater. In his first political campaign, a losing 1964 bid for a U.S. Senate seat, he was wrong about the two most important questions facing the country: He ran as a Vietnam War hawk who opposed the era’s civil-rights legislation.

Wikimedia Commons

But elected to Congress in 1966, he did much better. “He voted for civil rights legislation, the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft,” The Washington Post reported. “He backed a call for American withdrawal from Vietnam. According to Americans for Constitutional Action, a conservative ratings group, Bush’s voting record fell from 83 percent conservative in 1967 to 58 percent conservative in 1970.” Nevertheless, he lost another Senate race that year.

But he managed to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, then a diplomat working on relations with China, and finally the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In that post, as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and as his successor in the White House, he engaged in various morally indefensible behaviors common to all modern presidents, but had fewer scandals than his predecessor or successor and behaved far better than many members of his profession.

Susan Biddle / The White House

In the White House, he governed as a moderate fiscal conservative, spoke more inclusively about Mexican immigrants than most members of his party do today, and managed to preserve global stability during an uncommonly tumultuous period that saw Eastern Europe’s liberation, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square atrocity, and the precipitous decline and fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever one thinks about the Persian Gulf War, he also led a coalition that competently ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait without destabilizing the Middle East.


Insert George H.W. Bush into the presidency at nearly any point in American history and it is plausible to imagine him doing as well or better than the sitting president. But for Pat Buchanan’s unexpectedly strong but always doomed primary challenge, Ross Perot’s third-party run, and a shortsighted Republican Party that cared more about tax cuts than fiscal responsibility, Bush would have been a successful two-term leader and gotten some credit for the economic boom over which his successor presided.

* * *

Were Jeb Bush running on his father’s legacy after Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama presidencies, his family name would likely be a boon rather than an albatross. But George W. Bush, whose life before 2000 was far less impressive than his father’s life, predictably turned out to be a far less impressive president.

It’s a wonder that the country ever imagined that the outcome could be different.

Unlike his father, George W. Bush didn’t particularly distinguish himself at Phillips Academy or Yale. In the Texas Air National Guard he scored low on a pilot aptitude test and was once suspended from flying for failing to take a required physical. The highest honor that he received from his service was an honorable discharge.

At 26, he drove home drunk with a sibling in the car and plowed into a neighbor’s garbage cans.

At 30, he pled guilty to driving drunk.

One wonders how many other times this unusually advantaged child behaved not with the noblesse oblige of his father, but with reckless disregard for the lives of others.

At 40 years old, Bush was still struggling with alcohol, having failed to succeed in the Texas oil business despite an upbringing of unimaginable privilege, an education that took him from Andover to Yale to Harvard Business School, and all the connections associated with a father who succeeded from the oil business all the way to the White House. To his credit, he got sober after that. His investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team was wildly profitable, and he was elected governor of Texas in 1994, serving two terms that were neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad––something that cannot be said for his catastrophic presidency.

Jeb Bush wore a Cubs jacket while his brother was part owner of the Texas Rangers, but balks at noting his foreign policy errors. (Reuters)

The second Bush Administration began with the biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor and concluded with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As my colleague Peter Beinart just noted, “There’s no way of knowing for sure if Bush could have stopped the September 11 attacks. But that’s not the right question. The right question is: Did Bush do everything he could reasonably have to stop them, given what he knew at the time? And he didn’t. It’s not even close.”

Peter then presents a specific, extremely persuasive argument to that effect that’s worth reading in full. The short version: Both CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Council counterterrorism “czar” Richard Clarke gave repeated, dire warnings about the threat posed by Al Qaeda, only to be brushed off by Bush appointees, many of whom insisted from the start that a bigger threat was posed by Iraq, a country that they focused on both before and after the September 11 attacks.

Today, as many Republicans as not regard the Iraq War as a mistake, but very few of them are willing to face up to an obvious but uncomfortable corollary: If you launch a mistaken war that costs trillions of dollars, kills 4,425 of your countrymen, and wounds 32,223 Americans, many of whom have PTSD, missing limbs, or suicidal depression, that alone makes you a poor president of the United States. (With Barack Obama’s rise, I thought that Democrats saw this reality more clearly, but they are now poised to nominate someone who supported the Iraq War and don’t seem to believe that vote made her a poor senator.)

Americans could be more confident that Jeb Bush has learned from his brother’s mistakes and won’t repeat them if he flatly stated that George W. Bush was an awful president. Few voters, myself included, would insist that he utter those words. But if familial bonds make it understandable that Jeb would go easy on George in his rhetoric, it also raises the possibility that he cannot see his brother’s administration clearly; that he has not learned its lessons; that familial loyalty would cause him to reward George W. Bush administration staffers who do not merit being in another White House; and that protectiveness about his brother’s legacy would skew his judgment when making decisions about U.S. foreign policy.

Jeb Bush could alleviate those concerns without savaging his brother. He might say something like, “My dad and my brother were their own men and took their own approaches to the presidency. On foreign policy, I much prefer my dad’s approach. On domestic policy, I think that my brother got some important things right.”

Of course, many Jeb Bush backers in the GOP establishment prefer George W. Bush’s foreign policy instincts and didn’t care for either domestic agenda. It’s hard to say if Jeb Bush is pandering or if his approach reflects his true beliefs. But whether his presidential campaign is being governed by the faction of the GOP elites who support him, his real views, or some combination, the failure to associate himself with his father’s legacy is substantively odd and ought to worry voters.

“George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy record was by far the most successful of the last thirty-five years, and it was certainly far less harmful than his son’s administration,” Daniel Larison notes at The American Conservative. “If a Republican candidate wanted to show voters that he intends to conduct a competent and successful foreign policy, the example he would cite is that of the elder Bush, but because Bush and his advisers are now perceived as too realist that never happens. Indeed, because the second Bush presidency has made the first seem even more competent and effective than it was, the party’s hawks don’t want to mention the latter because it reminds everyone of their own terrible judgment.”

As someone who would take George H.W. Bush in his prime as president over any candidate currently running in either party, and would not vote for George W. Bush pitted against any candidate in the current field, Jeb’s approach has thoroughly alienated me. Inexplicably, he hasn’t once persuasively articulated an insight or experience gleaned from his father or brother that would help him to be a better leader.

More importantly, the tenor of his comments about his brother and 9/11—the most consequential event in the Bush presidency and recent world history—suggest a man whose capacity for rigorous thinking and basic logic fail when familial ties are implicated. That’s a deal-breaker if your dad and brother were president!

Ben Mathis-Lilley put it well at Slate:

When Donald Trump insulted George W. Bush's presidency during the Sept. 16 Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, Jeb Bush made the odd statement that 9/11 demonstrated that his brother had “kept us safe.”

The Jeb campaign then emphasized the claim in a tweet, juxtaposing the phrase “kept us safe” with an image of 9/11 rubble, i.e. a visual symbol of the deadliest foreign attack ever carried out against Americans on home soil. The issue receded for a few weeks, but this morning on Bloomberg TV Donald Trump made the (factual) statement that 9/11 happened during the George W. Bush Administration, and Jeb pounced:

How pathetic for @realdonaldtrump to criticize the president for 9/11. We were attacked & my brother kept us safe.— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) October 16, 2015

This is entering the realm of the surreal. He’s now putting the words attacked and kept us safe in the same sentence! Jeb Bush is one step away from citing 9/11 as evidence that George W. Bush prevented 9/11.


Had Jeb Bush said that no president could’ve prevented 9/11, a position I’ve held myself, I would now disagree for the reasons my colleague states but find the claim plausible. Even if Jeb Bush had asserted that his brother’s actions prevented other imminent attacks, I would have to admit that I couldn’t definitively disprove the claim. But repeatedly using 9/11 as the basis for the claim that Bush kept us safe is a nutty departure from the reality-based community––and what’s more, the claim that Bush “kept us safe” would be demonstrably false even if 9/11 had never happened. I don’t blame George W. Bush for all of the following—mostly I just blame him for the first item—but if the claim is he kept Americans safe, all disprove it.


Most obviously, those 4,425 Americans killed and 32,223 Americans wounded in Iraq were not kept safe during that war of choice, launched by an administration with faulty intelligence. Even if one thinks, against all evidence, that the Iraq War was necessary to protect national security, the inept planning and execution of Bush and his foreign policy team failed to keep the soldiers on the ground as safe as they could have been. American parents are still mourning dead children as a result of these failures.

Implied in the claim that Bush “kept us safe” is that there weren’t any other attacks during his tenure. But that isn’t true either. Bush did not keep America safe from the 17 people killed by the Beltway snipers, or from whoever sent anthrax through the U.S. postal system. Bush didn’t protect us from the man who tried to light an explosive in his shoe on a December 2001 flight, though that plot failed due to the terrorist’s incompetence or bad luck. He did not keep us safe from the Egyptian gunman that killed two and injured four at LAX in 2002. He did not keep us safe from the gunman who attacked the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006. He did preside over a period in which there wasn’t another 9/11 scale attack—but that is true of literally every other president in the history of the United States of America. Bush presided over one 9/11; all the other presidents presided over zero combined.

Neither did Bush do all he could to keep Americans safe during and after Hurricane Katrina, even if one reasonably attributes most blame to state and local officials.


Jeb Bush’s illogic here cannot be dismissed as throw-away Tweets.

“Do you think it’s at all possible that your loyalty to your brother, while admirable on a personal level, might be in some ways a political or policy liability, blinding you to mistakes he made?” Jake Tapper asked the candidate last week in a CNN interview.

The exchange that followed was one of Jeb’s logical breakdowns.

“No, I mean so, next week Mr. Trump is probably going to say that FDR was around when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.” But FDR was around when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor! Why can’t Jeb Bush express himself with precision on this subject?

The candidate continued, “It’s what you do after that matters, that’s the sign of leadership. It’s not the, uh, does anybody really blame my brother for the attacks on 9/11? If they do, they’re totally marginalized in our society. It’s what he did afterward that matters, I’m proud of him, and so are a lot of other people. You don’t have to have your last name be Bush to be able to understand that. And it calls into question Mr. Trump’s credibility as a commander in chief and the architect of the next generation of foreign policy, which we desperately need in this country.”

Jeb Bush, who signed the neoconservative Project for a New American Century blueprint for American foreign policy and now says that the Iraq War was a mistake, isn’t in a position to lecture anyone about their credibility as a foreign-policy architect. But what’s most remarkable about that exchange is the “it’s what you do after that matters” line. If Jeb Bush is the nominee, his opponent will seize on it.

Imagine Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders on stage in a general election debate:

“Jeb, I was absolutely shocked to hear you tell Jake Tapper that a good leader needn’t stop a 9/11-style attack––as you said on CNN, ‘it’s what you do after that matters.’ Frankly, I don’t want a president who thinks he can be a good leader while failing to prevent 3,000 Americans from being murdered as long as he responds well afterward. My standard of success as president will be preventing mass murder.”

And the Jake Tapper interview wasn’t even over. “Al Qaeda was responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” Tapper said, underscoring the fact that criticizing someone for failing to stop something isn’t the same as holding them responsible for it, “but how do you respond to critics who ask, if your brother and his administration bear no responsibility at all, how do you then make the jump that President Obama or Secretary Clinton are responsible for what happened at Benghazi?”

Does it only matter what they did afterward?

Said Bush, “Well the question on Benghazi, which we’ll now finally get the truth to, is was the place secure? They had a responsibility, the Department of State, for proper security.” As did the Bush Administration before 9/11. “There were calls for security. It looks like they didn’t get it.” Again, the same thing applies to George W. Bush. “And how was the response in the aftermath of the attack?” Jeb said. “Was there a chance that these four American lives could’ve been saved? That’s what the investigation is about. It’s not a political issue. It’s not about the broad policy issue. It’s were we doing the job of protecting our embassies and our consulates, and during the period after those attacks started, could they have been saved?”

Said Tapper, “Well that’s kinda proving the point of the critics I was just asking about, because you don't want to have your brother bear responsibility for 9/11, and I understand that argument. And Al Qaeda is responsible. But why are the terrorists not the ones responsible for this attack in Libya?”

Said Bush, “They are. Of course they are. But if the ambassador was looking for additional security and didn’t get it, that’s a proper point. And if it’s proven that the security was adequate compared to other embassies then fine, we’ll move on.”

For Bush, the glaring double-standard in his less than fully considered argument is only exacerbated by the fact that, in addition to failing to provide the “additional security” before 9/11 that Richard Clarke repeatedly sought, George W. Bush, who purportedly “kept us safe,” was also the president during an interval when 20 attacks on American facilities abroad led to the deaths of 87 people. In part to defend his brother, Jeb Bush is twisting himself in pretzels on foreign policy questions that any serious candidate for the presidency should’ve thought through.

Jeb’s approach bodes ill for his ability to win a general election––as my colleague wrote yesterday, “By a margin of 11 points, Americans disapprove of the way George W. handled the presidency. By 15 points, they don’t think he did a good job keeping America safe. And by a margin of 45 points, they wouldn’t vote for him in 2016.”

And it also bodes ill for his ability to think clearly in office when confronted with decisions that bear on actions taken by his brother and how the country remembers him.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton seems able to dispassionately discuss or even call for reversing policies signed by her husband, even if her Iraq War vote probably harmed U.S. lives and interests more than any official action Bill Clinton ever took.

Jeb’s failure isn’t his alone.

Millions of Republicans have been in denial for years about how awful a president George W. Bush turned out to be, even Tea Partiers ostensibly rebelling against his shortcomings. Only now that Donald Trump, scourge of Blue America, is daring to criticize Bush 43 are parts of the base permitting themselves to see what’s before their noses.

In “Jeb Bush’s Dilemma,” Peter Beinart writes that “at the heart of Bush’s campaign lies this deadly irony: His last name is the reason he’d be a terrible general-election candidate. But his last name is also the only thing about his candidacy that Republicans really like ... With his last name, he reminds most Americans of the bad old days they want to leave behind. Without it, he’s George Pataki. Option number one is better than option number two. But it’s still pretty bad.”


If Jeb were a better politician, a clearer thinker, or belonged to a clearer-thinking political party, the solution would be clear: run as George H.W.’s son, not George W.’s brother, just as Michael Corleone was better served emulating Vito than defending Sonny.

So long as Jeb keeps defending his big brother and evading the awfulness of his presidency, he cannot effectively lead his party, coherently critique any Democrat’s foreign policy, or win the American public’s trust in a general election. If his line is Bush “kept us safe,” then barring an attack that kills thousands in the next year, the Democratic nominee will simply respond, “Obama kept us safer.” And if he truly doesn’t understand that his brother was a catastrophic foreign-policy president, he may reunite the gang for another war of choice or two.