Jeb Bush’s rocky week is drawing to a close with a strikingly human admission: family loyalty matters to him and sometimes that makes simple answers very complicated.
As he has explored a run for president from his unique vantage point as the son and brother of former presidents, Bush’s last name – rather than his position on immigration or the Common Core – is proving to be his biggest challenge. Time and again, he has been caught between the political necessity to differentiate himself from President George W. Bush and what appears to be an instinct to protect him.
The challenge took on greater urgency this week after Bush found himself in the center of a controversy over his assessment of his brother’s decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago. After stumbling for days, Bush was finally clear on Thursday during an event in Arizona: “Knowing what we know now, … I would not have engaged. I would have not gone into Iraq.”
On a more personal note, he acknowledged that it was difficult for him to say that publicly, in part because he didn’t want to be disloyal to his brother; and in part because he didn’t want to appear to dishonor the service of the veterans who died in Iraq.
“I don’t go out of my way to disagree with my brother,” Jeb Bush told reporters after his event at Four Peaks Brewery here. “I am loyal to him. I don’t think it’s necessary to go through every place where I disagree with him. As it relates to the Iraq war, I hope I was clearer on where I stood.”
Bush went even further in his embrace of his family late Thursday evening during his speech at the Republican National Committee gathering in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I know I’m going to have to get beyond being George H.W. Bush’s son and Barbara’s son – for which I’m really proud. And I’m going to get beyond being George W.’s brother for which I am extraordinarily proud as well,” Bush said to applause Thursday night.
“There’s a lot of interest in finding the ways that we are different and all this. Well, the simple fact is that we’re all on our own life’s journey – my brothers and sister are different than me,” Bush said. “But I’m not going to go out of my way to say that my brother did this wrong or my dad this wrong. It’s just not going to happen. I have a hard time with that. I love my family a lot.
Before going on to sketch his biography for the crowd, he added: “I’m going to have to show my heart, show who I am, tell my life story so people know that I’m doing this for the right reason.”
It was an answer many of Bush’s allies and donors wished the former Florida governor had given days ago. Instead the would-be candidate – who has drawn tens of millions of dollars to his potential effort in large part because he was supposed to be the one who was steady and polished – ended up in a quagmire of his own making.
Rather than showing the kind of raw political talent and instincts that made his brother shine in 2000, the younger Bush confirmed this week what many observers have seen over the years: Jeb Bush has difficulty answering in sound bites.
Where George W. Bush labeled himself a “uniter, not a divider,” Jeb Bush takes more time to formulate his answers and thoughts on the issues – a luxury that he had during a very different kind of media cycle a decade ago when he was last running for public office.
Explaining his reluctance to talk about Iraq, he said Thursday that as Florida’s governor, he had called “over 100 family members who lost a loved one in service to our great country.” It was not “an easy thing to do,” he said.
“It’s very hard for me to say their lives were lost in vain. In fact, they weren’t,” Bush said. “Their sacrifice is worth honoring, not depreciating. And I believe that in the bottom of my heart.”
He dismissed his assertion earlier this week that he wouldn’t answer “hypothetical” questions when he said he would not have gone into Iraq if he had known about the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion.
“That’s not to say the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is gone. It’s significantly safer,” he added, defending the actions of his brother. “That’s not to say that there was a courageous effort to bring about a surge that created stability in Iraq. All of that is true, and that’s not to say that the men and women that have served in uniform and many others that went to Iraq to serve.”
A number of Republican political operatives expressed relief after Bush’s final answer Thursday – saying that his clarification would help him move on to the issues that he actually wants to talk about.
’Glimpse of who the person is’
Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire committeeman, said it was one of the episodes on the campaign trail “where we get a glimpse of who the person is.”
“It’s those moments when voters get to take the measure of a person,” said Duprey, who was attending this week’s Republican National Committee meeting in Phoenix. “I think people understood – obviously he loves his father; he loves his brother; he’s loyal to them, but he’s his own person and I think he did a good job showing that.”
Ron Kaufman, who advised George H. W. Bush and was wearing a “Jeb!” wristwatch at the GOP gathering, argued that voters would ultimately come to see the closeness of the Bush family as an asset.
“Presidents don’t talk to presidents enough,” Kaufman said. “Whether they agree or not is not the point – they’ve been there, they’ve been at the decision-making point where no one else has ever been…. Not using that resource? Shame on any future president who doesn’t – particularly if he’s your brother.”
But that did not mean that other potential rivals were willing to let the issue go.
“I don’t know how that was a hard question,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told reporters after speaking at the convention in Scottsdale.
Santorum suggested he might be a better candidate than Bush since he had been through the process before and noted that he had answered the Iraq question “a hundred times.”
“If you are not prepared for it, I think we’ve seen in the past, you are not going to do very, very well,” he said. “This is a long process.”
Santorum added: “I don’t know how anyone could look at that question and not – I mean his brother even said in his own book that he would have done something differently.”
The biggest risk for Bush stemming from this episode could be reinforcing a sense of fatigue among voters with his family’s history in politics – a challenge that, of course, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is also facing.
“We’ve had enough Bushes,” said Ken Fipps of Johns Island, South Carolina, who listened to Bush’s speech at the state’s GOP convention earlier this month. “We’re America. We don’t have a nobility.”
Stuart Kimball, a limousine driver who attended Bush’s town hall in Reno, Nevada, on Wednesday, said if Bush wins the nomination, he’ll have to “hold a clothespin over” his nose and vote for him over Clinton.
“Nobody loves what his brother has done,” he added. “I feel like I got to apologize to the American people for voting twice” for George W. Bush.
But other Republicans were more forgiving – noting that it is only May 2015 and that Bush has plenty of time to sharpen his skills as a candidate.
Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first White House press secretary, noted that the familial comparisons were “a well worn path” for the Bush family.
Fleischer, for example, dealt with questions about George H.W. Bush’s legacy when he was spokesman for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign.
The family ties “will be of press interest for much of the campaign,” Fleischer said, “up until the point where Jeb – by virtue of releasing his own policy initiatives, giving powerful speeches and taking stands that are Jeb Bush stands on contemporaneous issues – will make it go away.”