Like almost everyone the past few months, I’ve not felt inclined to be kind to or about John Ellis Bush. This was justified in my mind largely by the fact that life has been so incredibly kind to Jeb in the 60-some years previous, and likely will for many years more. I deeply resented the idea that someone, who despite whatever virtues they might or might not possess by their own merits, could meander from one political ruling position to another because of the family they were born into. The idea that after a horribly disastrous Bush administration, merely one presidency ago, another Bush could have the gall to presume what America really needed was another Bush in charge, well, I found that hubristic and grossly entitled. When he got pushed around by Trump, I enjoyed it. Sorry, Jeb, I thought, you don’t get this one handed to you because of who your dad and brother are. Your family has no genetic claim to the White House.
As I watched his concession speech after his final loss in South Carolina, I could see in his eyes that he was about to drop out of the race. My mirror neurons started firing as he choked up while declaring his exit. My heart ached a little for him. His speech was a classy one, dignified and generous. I began to remember that there was a human being inside the mantle of wealthy, powerful Bush pedigree.
In the time since, I have also thought about the myriad substantive reasons I have to dislike the man, fair and square. Those are of course about policy. Regardless of his relative lack of extremism as compared to Trump and Cruz, he still espouses the usual GOP orthodoxy on all the issues that matter. And that is a dangerous and inhumane orthodoxy. There’s no excuse for any rational, well-meaning would-be public servant to align themselves with it. Aside from the occasional mild heresies, Jeb Bush towed the line.
And the stone cold bullshit that was the whole “My brother kept us safe” malarkey. And that “America” gun tweet. Revolting. I hope the coming campaign tell-all books reveal that that was done by an intern with extremely poor judgment.
Yet no one is only a member of a family, or only a subscriber to an ideology, or only a member of a party. To put it in only a semi-charitable way, Jeb Bush could be a man who meant well, but was just wrong about almost everything.
I often chalked up his debate-stage pleas for civility as more or less cynical tactics to distinguish himself from, and possibly shame, Donald Trump. But it’s just as likely that he may also really believe in civility, in compromise, in treating even people we don’t like or understand with some measure of dignity. Who can really say?
Look, Jeb was a terrible candidate. I was genuinely taken aback by how poorly he performed at debates and the like. It screamed of a man who had never been truly challenged for power.
But maybe he was also, like me, an introvert. A different man altogether from his dunderheaded brother. Yes, he had a lot of things handed to him, a lot, but maybe he also wanted to just do some good work instead of engaging in pissing contests. (Read this piece by Seth Stevenson on the overlooked humanity of Jeb.)
I try to imagine what might have been different if he and not his brother had been president in 2001. Would all the disasters have happened anyway? His obvious aversion to conflict suggests he would have been bullied and bulldozed by people like Cheney and Rumsfeld, and led into the same traps. Again, who can say?
Whatever the case, 2016 was not his time. The GOP, the Republican Party his family and cohorts helped create, is now a home for aimlessly angry bigots and ignoramuses. That is not electorate that is open to introversion, thoughtfulness, or compassion.
So I feel a little for Jeb. I’m somewhat terrified of the party that spat him out, and yet to which he is still attached. I suppose he should have abandoned it years ago, before it would have a chance to abandon him.