Updated at 1:43 p.m. ET on October 19, 2020.
George W. Bush doesn’t like Donald Trump. He doesn’t like how Trump is behaving as president. He clearly doesn’t like the division in the country Trump has fostered. He knows American democracy is under threat. He has tried to be reassuring, telling people that America has survived rough times before—a way of using insistent optimism to diplomatically acknowledge the rough time the nation is going through now.
With less than three weeks until the election, Bush—as the only living former Republican president—would be in a position to stand up for American democracy if Trump loses but refuses to concede, as he has threatened to do.
But if Bush is planning on doing anything about Trump, or considering some way to stand together with the other former presidents to protect democracy, that would be news to the offices of those former presidents. They haven’t heard from him.
Joe Biden’s campaign looked into whether Bush would consider endorsing him but was told he wouldn’t be getting involved. If Biden wins and Trump refuses to concede, though, the Democrat would likely lean on Bush to speak up, a person familiar with the campaign’s thinking told me. I asked the Trump campaign if the president would want Bush’s endorsement. My email was ignored.
“This president does some things that might even drive President Bush to feel like he has to speak out, that he just can’t ignore the damage that’s being done to our democracy,” Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Bush’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who’s now the national chair of Republicans and Independents for Biden, told me. She paused for just long enough to consider what she’d said, a slight edge creeping into her voice. “He hasn’t so far, and there’s been significant damage done to our democracy.”
Bush could, if he wanted, be a voice in the election for the Republicans who have recoiled from Trump’s flirtations with white nationalism and his skepticism of COVID-19 precautions. He won’t. He could, as the president who preached about promoting freedom abroad, speak up about the clearly partisan voter-suppression efforts around the country. He hasn’t.
Or he could surprise many of those who know him and announce that, despite Trump’s issues, he’ll be supporting the president.
But Bush is not likely to do that, either. He sees himself as retired—so committed to staying out of politics that he declined to make a cameo in the nonpartisan celebrity voting special that ran on ABC last month. “He’s a man of good manners and strong upbringing,” Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana, who is an old Bush friend and his first Republican National Committee chair, told me. He posited that Bush’s reluctance to speak out is because “he does not want to make things worse.” Racicot, who, like Bush, didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, decided after watching the first debate that he would be voting for Biden this year.
Bill Kristol, long an unofficial leader of the Never Trump Republicans and now part of the pro-Biden Republican Voters Against Trump, told me he finds Bush’s silence “pretty inexplicable,” given the existential moment the country is facing.*
“If not now, when?” Kristol said. “If you’re not going to blow the whistle now and say, ‘This is beyond the pale,’ when are you going to do it?”
“I would love it if he would—but no,” Whitman said. “He is just not that way.”
People who know Bush say he reveres the office of the presidency and the post-presidential tradition of avoiding criticizing successors—the modern standard before Bill Clinton and Barack Obama decided to stay active after leaving office. Bush fans want to respect that. They want to encourage it. But they’re running out of patience, and say it’s no longer possible to revere both the presidency and this president. Several Bush alumni, speaking anonymously because they are wary about knocking their former boss, told me that his approach was exemplified by the extended summer vacation he spent at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. He’s done, they said. He’ll check in for short calls and meetings, but much of his attention is on being a grandfather and taking long bike rides, painting, planning an exhibit at the Bush Center on immigrants for the spring.
“President Bush has made clear that he is retired from presidential politics and doesn’t plan to wade in,” Freddy Ford, Bush’s current chief of staff, wrote to me in a short email.
But others pointed me to brief remarks Bush made at the Bush Center in September, when what is normally a big event for the center’s Forum on Leadership was turned socially distanced and mostly virtual. Bush is 74 now, and his age is showing slightly, but his face, twang, and sense of humor haven’t changed much. “This is a really weird year—obviously,” he said after taking the podium to speak, his just-removed mask in hand. “As people grapple for a way forward for our country, I think if they look at the principles that guide our programs, they will see an optimistic future.” He mentioned some of the event’s honorees, Americans involved in helping other Americans. He plugged his new book, which includes paintings of the North Korean refugee Joseph Kim and the basketball star Dirk Nowitzki. “People look around and see America at its worst. Not those of us at the Bush Center.”
The most Bush has said beyond that came via two video messages released months ago. In May, he called for national unity in the face of the coronavirus: “We are not partisan combatants; we are human beings,” he said, prompting Trump to snap back a few days later by tweeting a comment from a Fox News host about how Bush was “nowhere to be found” during Trump’s impeachment trial. He released the other in June, at the height of the George Floyd protests and the day after Trump’s clearing of Lafayette Square to wave a Bible in front of cameras. “Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason,” he said. “There is a better way—the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice. I am confident that together, Americans will choose the better way.”
It’s hard not to see those messages as a pretty clear rejection of Trump.
Bush has been using this not-so-subtle subtweet approach for a while. At a Bush-alumni event at the Anthem Theater in Washington, D.C., in summer 2019, he spoke about remembering that his staff had come to the capital to serve the country, not any one man.
Kristopher Purcell, a former Bush White House communications aide who’s on the organizing committee for 43 Alumni for Biden, told me that the group reached out to the former president’s office before launching over the summer. “Obviously, if they wanted to discourage us, they could have,” he said, though he added that the group has been careful not to assert anything about what the president himself thinks. Purcell told me that in addition to the more than 250 Bush alumni who have publicly signed on, another 200 to 250 have privately reached out to pledge support for Biden, saying that they worry about the consequences for their family, their future political career, or their business if they’re known to have crossed Trump. I’ve been told that the shy Biden supporters among the Bush alumni include several senior White House staff and Cabinet secretaries, in addition to the seven former secretaries who have already publicly backed Biden.
Another person close to the former president who has stayed quiet is his brother Jeb, the former Florida governor, who was tagged with a humiliating nickname and then steamrolled by Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. Jeb is more of a policy wonk, and is seen as maybe supporting some Trump-administration efforts, such as in the Department of Education, and his judicial appointments (the former president approves of at least some of those himself—in a rare Trump-Bush conversation, he expressed his support for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court). But Jeb is seen by many as not wanting to mess up his son’s political future. George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner who’s an almost certain candidate for higher office sometime soon, endorsed Trump in June.
When I emailed Jeb asking to speak with him about the election, he emailed back to decline. “I am focused on my family, my business and our education reform foundation,” he wrote. When I asked him directly whether he was supporting Trump, and whether there was anything to the suggestion that he was looking to protect his son’s future by staying quiet, he wrote back, “Not taking the bite.”
The only person still checking in with President Bush who is clearly an avid Trump supporter is Karl Rove, his old political mastermind. When I called Rove to ask him about the former president and the current president, he told me he was on set on Fox News, waiting to go on air, and would call back. He didn’t, and he never responded to follow-up calls or emails. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first White House press secretary, meanwhile, has become known for a cycle of decrying and defending Trump on Twitter.
Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice president, hasn’t said anything about this year’s race, though at the end of June, amid Trump’s attacks on wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, his daughter tweeted a photo of him in a cowboy hat and a medical mask with the caption “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks.” George H. W. Bush, of course, was very open about his own feelings, saying he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, calling Trump a “blowhard” in 2017, and agreeing to invite the president to his funeral only so his absence wouldn’t be a distraction. The mutual disrespect Trump had with the late John McCain is well known, and his relationship with Mitt Romney is so petty that in March, he responded, “Gee, that’s too bad” when he was told that the 2012 presidential nominee and now Utah senator might have been exposed to COVID-19. Romney, though very critical of him, won’t attack Trump by name.
Of course, before this presidency led to a reconsideration of Bush by anti-Trump forces, hardly anyone was seeking his support. He hasn’t attended a Republican convention since his own reelection in 2004 (he spoke briefly by satellite in 2008).
For some of the Republicans expecting Trump to lose and an internal GOP melee to be set off, there’s scattered hope of Bush helping bring the party together somehow. What that would look like is not at all clear. He endorsed Maine Senator Susan Collins for reelection, but that’s the extent of his involvement in this year’s contests, and he doesn’t have many relationships with the rising generation of Republican leaders such as Nikki Haley, Josh Hawley, or Tom Cotton.
“George Bush doesn’t need to be the standard-bearer of whatever comes after Trump,” Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair, who’s supporting Biden, told me. With conservatives like him hoping for a return to a more traditional Republican Party, Steele said, “Bush is someone who has the opportunity to remind us of what those values were.”
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the former presidents’ staffs stayed in touch as they made their announcements about attending the ceremony. (In the end, all came except for the elder Bush, citing health concerns.) Over the past four years, there have been multiple moments when Trump’s opponents have hoped that the ex-presidents would issue some kind of joint statement.
“Especially during the first few months of the pandemic and after George Floyd’s death, there were constant calls and emails from people wishing all the presidents to get together to do something,” one person in touch with a former president told me. “But that group uniquely knows that to have maximum impact and be viewed as a bipartisan effort, all of them would have to participate.”
But the only times the former presidents appeared together was at a 2017 hurricane-relief concert in College Station, Texas organized by the elder Bush, and then at his funeral.**
Imagine, however, that Trump loses and spends the transition undermining the election and threatening to stay in the White House. A joint statement probably won’t mean much if it’s signed only by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama—all Democrats who have endorsed Biden. Keeping neutral through the election might give Bush more credibility to be part of a statement that would aim to stand above politics.
The irony, of course, is that Bush came into office after his own long, contested election 20 years ago, when he moved forcefully to assert control. I reached out to Al Gore to see what he made of Bush’s current rectitude. He declined to comment.
Steele said he thinks the turmoil might be bad enough that the country will need Bush to speak up.
“It’s not going to be a question of George Bush placating hard-core Trumpers,” Steele said. “What George Bush can do is speak to the relatives and friends of those hard-core Trumpers and say, ‘Can you get your crew to calm down a little bit?’”
* This article previously misstated that Bill Kristol is part of the Lincoln Project. In fact, he is part of Republican Voters Against Trump.
** An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the hurricane relief concert.