Jeb Bush Was Not a Joke
His decency, compassion, and rigor were his downfall. What a shame.
Jeb Bush’s extremely bad week began last Monday evening in the Charleston Convention Center. Facing anemic poll numbers and dwindling campaign cash, he needed something big. And so—before a couple thousand South Carolinians, a bank of news cameras, and a flock of reporters who flapped in like vultures placidly eyeing a wounded animal—he deployed his final line of defense: his big brother.
There was good ol’ Dubya, moseying out to raucous applause. The Decider is edging up on 70 now, exhibiting far less hair and notably slurrier diction. But durned if he didn’t unholster that squinty-eyed, chest-forward ’tude that the folks still love. There were shouts of “We miss you!” as he spoke.
George praised his little bro’s “humility” and “quiet conviction.” He reminded us that “the strongest person usually isn’t the loudest in the room.” As introductions go, it was nigh apologetic—like Eeyore was about to step to the lectern.
But the Jeb who took the stage was pumped. He boomed at the mic, opening with a dramatic warning that our world was being “turned asunder.” Jeb had seen an optometrist earlier that day, ditching his doofusy glasses for contact lenses. He’d adios’d his quarter-zip dad sweater in favor of a suit and tie. He was sporting a slicker haircut. He’d pulled out all the stops.
It sure felt like a last stand. Not just for Jeb Bush’s campaign, but maybe for Jeb Bush’s basic dignity as a human being. For the tattered legacy of the Bush family. For the remnants of an embattled GOP faction. Even, one might argue, for the quaint notion of civility in public life.
Anyway, none of it worked. I saw people leaving once Dubya was done, and after it became clear that Laura Bush, also sitting on stage, wouldn’t be speaking. They stepped on discarded “Jeb!” placards as they headed for the exits.
By Wednesday afternoon, after this desperate kick for the surface, Jeb’s campaign was sinking to previously uncharted depths. Around the same moment that popular South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was endorsing Marco Rubio, Jeb was addressing a modest gathering inside a gazebo at the Summerville Country Club, a little inland from Charleston. Things quickly went to a very sad place. By the time the event was over, multiple attendees had expressed their sympathy for Jeb—how sorry they were that he’d failed to stop Donald Trump from stealing his lunch money.
“I loved your brother. Can you be in that category?” inquired an older man, rather doubtfully. “Can you be a sumbitch?”
“I will be tough. I will be resolute. I will be firm. I will be clear. I will be determined,” Jeb answered. He rattled it off with that low-key affect of his, standing about 30 yards from the tee box on the sixth hole of a golf course. It was the least sumbitchy thing you ever saw in your life.
At one point, Jeb unleashed a bitter rant. “It’s all been decided, apparently,” he said. “The pundits have decided. We don’t have to go vote, I guess. I should just stop campaigning, maybe?”
“No, no,” a few people in one corner said.
By Saturday night, it was all over but the crying. And then the crying happened, too. Standing in front of volunteers in a small function room at the Columbia Hilton, Jeb choked up as he announced he was suspending his campaign. People in the crowd dabbed at their eyes.
I asked a man with a “Jeb!” sticker on his blazer lapel if he was surprised that Jeb had quit the race. “I’m not surprised that Jeb Bush was a statesman to the end,” he said, defiance in his voice. “The Republican Party may have moved, but Jeb Bush hasn’t.”
And that, I think, was his virtue and his downfall.
* * *
I never expected to like Jeb. Boarding school toff. Political scion. Staunch pro-lifer. NRA favorite. Oh, and ugh, the Terri Schiavo stuff.
Still, I couldn’t help but warm to him as the campaign wore on. And then even pull for him, a little. It was partly the pathos. Jeb felt somehow more human than other candidates. Vulnerable, struggling, unable to conceal flashes of fear and melancholy.
He also showed compassion on the trail. Take this, from a British journalist who, for unclear reasons, felt compelled to stand up at Jeb’s event in Greenville on Friday and say this: “My job as a columnist is to follow these rallies. I haven’t heard any other candidate give a long period in their speech to talking about people with learning disabilities, to talk about people at the bottom of the pack. And whatever happens to your campaign, sir, that heart you should be really proud of.” I concur, randomly effusive British journalist.
But what sealed it for me was Jeb’s backbone. You heard me right: Poor, sweet, pitiful Jeb was the one guy with spine. The only GOP candidate who made it a point to denounce Trump’s worst barbarities. I watched him do it again and again on the trail. “He’s entertaining,” he’d say of Trump, “unless you’re a woman, or Hispanic, or a disabled person. But it’s not so entertaining when you get disparaged.” Or: “It’s not strong to denigrate people. It’s a sign of weakness.”
Of course, those should be obvious sentiments. Any good-hearted fourth-grader knows as much. And yet Jeb stood alone among his colleagues, shouting, “You can’t insult your way to the nomination!” into a pitiless void. The other guys allowed—and continue to allow—Trump’s vile hate to go unchallenged. “The country is angry,” they say. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.
* * *
Jeb had all manner of deficiencies as a candidate. Among them, as so often is the case with tragic protagonists, his own family. Third time was not the charm. “Bush fatigue” was a major stumbling block.
It’s a little unfair to tar Jeb with the sins of his brother when they’re so unalike. As Dubya spoke in Charleston last week, he carefully painted Jeb as the beta sibling. Dubya reminisced about sitting in the stands with Jeb at Astros games when they were younger: George would watch the action on the field while Jeb would be “writing love letters to his future wife.” The two men’s grandkids have bestowed on them different, and telling, nicknames: “Jeb is ‘Gampy’ and I’m ‘El Jefe,’ ” said Dubya with that staccato chortle. “In case you’re not bilingual, that means ‘the boss.’ ”
Jeb might have more of his father in him. The WASPy reserve. The considered restraint—a quality that Newsweek, back in 1987, labeled the “Wimp Factor.” But Jeb has never shown Poppy’s killer instinct. Former Slate editor Michael Kinsley once termed G.H.W. a “grandee with a switchblade.” You don’t get the sense Jeb is keen to shiv anyone.
Along with Bush money and Bush connections, Jeb also inherited the Bushian infelicity with language. Not once have I seen him make it through a speech without mangling some phrase or stumbling on his words. Likewise, he’s burdened with the Bush men’s awkward sense of humor. His jokes rarely land.
The albatross of his family aside, this was never going to be Jeb’s election cycle. He’s far too temperate. His stump speech promised a “steady hand” at a time when there’s zero demand for steady hands. To get traction in 2016, you gotta pledge to burn the whole mofo down.
Even within the “establishment lane,” Jeb was especially ill-suited to our moment. Go ahead, feast your eyes on Rubio and Haley—a pair of attractive, multiculti 44-year-olds who resemble “a Benetton commercial.” Now direct your gaze to pasty, 63-year-old Jeb—campaigning not with Nikki Haley but with Lindsey Graham and a couple of wrinkled Navy admirals. Jeb was saddled with a surname, a team of advisers, and a policy slate that all smelled like yesterday’s fish.
To the extent that he’s a guy who thrived in a previous era, awoke to a new epoch that rejects him, and needed radical retraining to get the job he wanted, Jeb’s not unlike those left-behind Trump voters we keep hearing about. Another outmoded white dude.
* * *
There I go again, letting Trump dominate the conversation. “The front-runner,” as Jeb called him on the stump—skirting proper nouns as though Trump were Voldemort—looms over all. But if there’s a single person who’s suffered most under the Donald’s vicious reign—I’m not talking about poll results, but personally, emotionally—that person has to be Jeb.
It was painful to witness. A sort of atavistic predator-prey relationship. Trump would pin Jeb down, toy with his quarry, flay the skin off piece by piece. Watching Jeb on the debate stage, I could feel the prickly heat bloom across his nape whenever Trump attacked. Jeb would rock back and forth, his shoulders bobbing, an awkward rictus grin spreading across his face. I’m quite familiar with these involuntary responses. I, too, am a man deeply averse to conflict.
I spotted Jeb as a fellow introvert right from the start. Shy recognize shy. It must have been a singular torture to campaign for president with this personality suite. Jeb can’t saber-rattle like his brother. He can’t cornpone like Lindsey Graham. His battle with Trump was a classic clash of phlegmatic versus choleric—never a winning matchup for the quiet guy.
“Introverts grind. They set goals,” said Jeb at a town hall in Columbia Thursday night, when asked if his ailment had a silver lining. “Introverts like to listen,” he added. Every profile of Jeb notes how comfortable he is in smaller settings, soaking up information, diving into nitty-gritty details. A voter in the audience at the Summerville event—a disabled veteran—stood up and described a meeting he had with Jeb and other wounded vets a few years ago. “I was so impressed,” he said, with evident gratitude, “because you took out a pen and notebook and just listened for three hours. I don’t think any other candidate would do that.”
You can’t deny his rigor. He produced a 47-page policy pamphlet that he called “the short version.” He could discuss “recourse debt” and “forbearance rates” when asked about student loans. When one voter mentioned that she had a special-needs child, Jeb spoke with tremendous passion and fluency about educational solutions for developmentally disabled kids.
Please recall that Trump mocked a disabled man by making gimpy arm motions.
* * *
Last week, after Jeb’s Myrtle Beach event ended, I went around asking attendees if they’d been won over. There was general assent that Jeb was “a good man.” But multiple people said they were still leaning toward Rubio or Kasich.
One woman confessed that she wasn’t a Republican voter at all. She just wanted to scope out the GOP candidates who came through town, in case any reached the White House. I asked her which one of them she’d choose, if forced. “Probably him,” she said, nodding toward the scrum of people taking selfies with Jeb. As she said it, I realized I felt the same way.
Look, I know he wanted to eliminate the estate tax. I know his brother was an awful president, and I know he was a terrible candidate. But it’s a shame that we caricaturized him out of existence this past year. He’s more than his unfortunate exclamation point. He’s not a walking sad-face emoji.
Given that the president serves as an avatar for our nation—the face we show the world, the mirror that reflects who we are—integrity in a candidate is no small thing. Earnest attention to detail is to be applauded. Willingness to listen is a mark of solid judgment. Empathy for the afflicted bespeaks good character.
Shit matters, is I guess what I’m saying. The Republican race snipped its strongest tether to decency when Jeb Bush bowed out Saturday night.