The Bushes always bristled at the “d” word. And now they don’t have to worry about it any more.
The dynasty has perished, with a whimper. The exclamation point has slouched off.
The Bushes are leaving the field to someone they have utter contempt for: Donald Trump.
And the main emotion in Bushworld is relief. No one could bear one more day of watching Jeb get the flesh flayed off him by Trump.
With his uncanny bat-like sonar, sensing how to psychologically gauge and then gut an opponent, Trump went straight for the Bushes’ biggest bête noir: wimpiness.
The blustery billionaire painted Jeb as a “low energy” candidate with a wilting exclamation point who was desperately in need of an infusion of testosterone; a soft child of privilege who had to depend on Daddy’s friends for money and Mommy’s presence on the trail to bail him out, even as he feared using his surname on his campaign posters; an entitled wonk who pathetically tried to get more popular by taking off his rimless glasses.
When Jeb bragged during the CBS debate about “winning the lottery” by getting Barbara Bush as a mother, Trump cracked, “She should be running.” And indeed, the 90-year-old exemplar of Greenwich granite wrote the epitaph of Jeb’s campaign before it even began, noting correctly that “We’ve had enough Bushes,” and that the same families should not be allowed to pass the White House back and forth.
Starting with 41, the family saga was the arc of blue bloods trying to seem red-blooded. They wanted what they saw as their due as the royal family of Republican politics. But they also wanted to come across as self-made men, men who struck out south from Kennebunkport and Greenwich to make their way in the world. They all had elaborate mythologies to prove they were their own men, even as they made business deals thanks to the family name and connections, and mined Bar’s Christmas card list for donors.
The Bush men always recast themselves to woo voters. Poppy Bush shed his preppy striped watchband and pretended that pork rinds, rather than popcorn, was his favorite snack. W. acted like the heir of Ronald Reagan rather than his own dad, who had alienated the conservative base and failed to win two terms. And Jeb tried to pep up — getting contact lenses and belatedly punching harder against Trump.
When Poppy Bush ran against Bill Clinton, he simply assumed that the public would not choose a draft-dodging womanizer over him. “His ambient reality was that a president was above all a figure of dignity and decorum,” Bush senior biographer Jon Meacham said. “Clinton went on Arsenio Hall. Bush 41 probably thought Arsenio Hall was a building at Andover.”
Just as the political ground had shifted under his father, leaving him befuddled and looking at his watch, so it shifted under Jeb, leaving him befuddled and tapping his foot.
Despite all the talk about civility, the Bushes threw out the red meat whenever they had to, from Lee Atwater and Willie Horton in ’88 to W.’s supporters whispering in 2000 that John McCain came home from Hanoi with snakes in his head to the W 2004 campaign strategy of encouraging gay marriage ballot initiatives to rile up the evangelicals to Jeb spending a fortune on ads this winter eviscerating the character of the man he deemed the disloyal protégé, Marco Rubio.
Winning was always more important than gentility. That’s what happened in 2000, when the family had to pressure Jeb to help purloin Florida. In return, W. came out of his oil-painting exile to try and deliver South Carolina for Jeb.
South Carolina was always wired for the Bushes. And that was the place the whole Byzantine sibling rivalry drama was going to be made right. The Bushes always thought their sober and studious second son would be president but the prodigal son shoved Jeb out of the way. Now Jeb would get his due.
Except that the inflammatory Trump, who delights in breaking the fourth wall, was perfectly happy to shatter the convention in Republican circles that W. “kept us safe,” as Jeb kept saying.
Trump stunned everyone by pointing out the obvious: W. and Condi were not on the ball before 9/11 , when W. was mountain-biking and ignoring memos headlined, as Bill Maher drily put it, “Osama bin Laden is standing right behind you.” Then, after 9/11 , they played right into Osama’s recruiting plans by invading and occupying two Muslim countries, instead of simply going after the guilty party, as W. had promised to do when he yelled through the bullhorn at ground zero.
Trump held the Bushes accountable for the trumped-up war. W.’s arrogant and delusional administration pulled the wool over Americans’ eyes about the Iraq invasion, which has ended up costing us trillions and killing and maiming hundreds of thousands. Even though Poppy Bush’s circle has always assumed that Jeb was on their side, believing that the invasion was a mistake because it would shatter the Middle East, Jeb stumbled around on that question and ended up defending his brother’s indefensible war. He even shocked his father’s circle by putting out a list of foreign policy advisers for his campaign that included one of the war’s woolly-headed architects, Paul Wolfowitz.
The underlying message of Bush campaigns is always: “Trust us. We know best.” But that has been proven false.
The country is now aflame with anger and disgust about politicians and bankers who conned trusting Americans and never got punished for it. That fury has led to the rise of wildly improbable candidates in both parties. As the Bush dynasty falls, it must watch in horror knowing that it is responsible for the rise of Donald Trump.