The fact of Bush’s lineage has made the grim saga of the campaign something more than Jeb’s personal drama. It has been his burden and his boon alike, elevating and stifling him at the same time. The topic of his family follows him everywhere, and not just because the media brings it up constantly. The voters, too, want to talk about it, with an unnerving intimacy.
“I’m a Bushophile,” a man in the crowd began his question. He wanted to know why Bush hadn’t utilized his father and brother more to campaign for him. “I know the liberals are saying you ran home to mommy and stuff like that,” the man added, “and by the way, your mother probably didn’t approve of you calling Trump a jerk—”
“She probably did,” Bush interjected, to laughter. He took the man’s question in stride—“I’m more than happy to get advice”—and launched into a tortured spiel about his paternal and fraternal ties. “Look, my dad and my brother served with distinction, and I love them dearly,” he said. Bush stood in the middle of the room, surrounded on all sides by rows of polite people on folding chairs, holding a microphone and pacing around a wooden stool, clad in a black fleece and gray slacks.
“I’m a 62-year-old man that has a life experience,” he added. “People are going to vote for me. They love my dad; some may love my brother and not love my dad—it’s a little more complicated, it’s not a unified deal. I’m proud of them. I’m not running away from them—that is total nonsense.” Bush praised his older brother for his leadership and for keeping America safe, then reiterated that he had to win the nomination on his own merits. “I spend time talking about my family in a loving way—you can’t ignore them, because that’s weird,” he said. “You can’t over-rely on them, either. There’s a balance.”
Bush’s pursuit of this tricky balance has made his campaign resemble a therapy session at times. (In November, he said of his father, to a group of New Hampshire schoolchildren, “All he would have to say is ‘I’m disappointed in you’ and it would send me into a deep depression for days.”) He is inseparable from his clan, and his fate echoes through the generations.
Trying to wrest the GOP away from demagogues, after all, is not a new experience for Bushes. In the 1960s, as chairman of the county GOP in Houston, George H.W. Bush spent most of his time trying to prevent the John Birchers from taking over the party. Bush Senior was the ultimate establishmentarian at a time when that still meant something—a New England Episcopalian, son of a U.S. senator, educated at Andover and Yale—but he left that heritage behind to seek his fortune in Texas.
George H.W. Bush didn’t make it to a second term, struggling to reckon with a GOP that resented his centrism and a country that found him wanting. George W. Bush, by the end of his two terms, was at war with a restive conservative movement, and these days, on the rare occasion he speaks publicly, he seems not to recognize his party. Now Jeb Bush, the latest public incarnation of the Bush family creed—a sort of to-the-manner-born graciousness, but with a hypercompetitive edge—is engaged in his own battle with the Republican grassroots. And it is one he appears, at the moment, to be losing.