After Nixon resigned, in August 1974, Gerald Ford, an accidental president looking to replace himself with an accidental vice president, whittled his list down to two, Bush and Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller was far better known, but Bush was sixteen years younger and much more palatable to the GOP base. He “was on the list partly because an RNC poll of party leaders showed that Dad had more support than anyone else,” Bush 43 writes. What he doesn’t say is that his father lobbied strenuously for the job. According to Parmet, Bush’s candidacy “was the most concerted and best organized.” It was, in the event, the ultimate appointive job and might plausibly lead to the presidency—the best option Bush could hope for, after his losing campaigns. Some thought he was damaged goods. Nixon, for one, had been convinced Bush lacked the killer instinct after Bush declined to spend money funneled through Nixon’s “Townhouse” operation for attack ads in his second Senate race, against Lloyd Bentsen in 1970. That money undid Bush, when its trail emerged during the Watergate investigations. Most of it had been sent to him legally. But $40,000, wired directly to an ad agency and not to campaign headquarters, had been left out of the required disclosure reports.
It was a petty infraction, but Bush now bore the Watergate taint, and Ford chose Rockefeller. Bush got a consolation prize: Ford made him director of the CIA—another job for a good soldier, especially since the agency was then in need of a clean-bristled “broom” after House and Senate committees uncovered a long train of intelligence abuses. The crusading liberal Senator Frank Church, who led the Senate investigation, objected to Bush’s appointment, saying he was too political. Bush got through the confirmation hearings, and as CIA director restored morale in part by attacking leakers like Philip Agee. He offered to stay in the job under the next president, Jimmy Carter, but was replaced. Bush’s career looked to be over. It wasn’t. Instead he challenged Ronald Reagan in 1980—as brazen an act as any Democrat’s challenging Hillary Clinton is likely to seem in 2016.
An exultant Bush, riding the crest of “Big Mo,” upset Reagan in Iowa and won a few more primaries—a testament to his energy and resourcefulness, and to his talent for positioning. His singular East Coast/Sun Belt identity made him a kind of GOP gyroscope, a precision-tooled seeker of respectable positions. Although he lacked Reagan’s political gifts, he zeroed in on Reagan’s weaknesses. His “voodoo economics” remains the wittiest epithet for Reagan’s supply-side credo, and although Bush would spend long years living it down, it did its job at the time, reinforcing the suspicion that Reagan might be an extremist simpleton and so helped secure Bush’s place on the ticket, as a ballast. Once invited in, Bush transferred his loyalty to Reagan, and when at last the nomination was his in 1988, he made sure, with Atwater’s help, not to repeat the tepid nice-guy-ism of his previous elections.
TODAY THE elder Bush’s presidency has profited from revisionism. (Barack Obama is an admirer.) Bush’s refusal to march to Baghdad was a model of restraint compared to what came later. But it was the denouement of the Cold War that brought out the best in Bush. Conservative mythology gives all the credit to Reagan, because of his thunderous rhetoric and his combination of diplomatic overtures and increased military spending. But Bush was president in the annus mirabilis of 1989—when the Berlin Wall fell, when the Velvet Revolution climaxed in Eastern Europe and when student protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square—all pulse points in the “end of history” described by Francis Fukuyama in The National Interest. Bush’s confident stewardship contrasts strikingly with the crusading of his son and discredits the claim that the two presidencies were ideologically of a piece.
It is true that the key players were often the same: the belligerents Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the pragmatists Powell and Condoleezza Rice. What differed was the distribution of power and influence. Bush 41 knew whom to listen to and when. Bush 43, though a skilled reader of other people in most circumstances, was utterly thrown off course by 9/11. In his hands, the gyroscope wobbled, the center didn’t hold. As interagency differences threatened to divide his administration, he fell back on the one political principle he really understood, loyalty, and elevated it into an ideology all its own, articulated most succinctly on September 20, 2001, in his televised speech to a joint session of Congress: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make,” Bush said. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Out of this stark dichotomy came the Iraq War. Bush 43, who had come into office with bold ideas on education and immigration, thus became the third modern example of a “legislative president” destroyed by his mismanagement of a war. The previous two—Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson—at least had the excuse that the wars found them.
Only George W. Bush had gone in search of a foreign monster. Also, unlike Wilson and LBJ, Bush had a meager domestic record. Mann, as tough as he is on Bush’s foreign policy, is equally unsparing on Bush’s failures at home, beginning with the giant tax cuts he pushed through even as he spent lavishly on domestic programs and created a new prescription-drug benefit. All this depleted the surplus he had inherited from Bill Clinton and created a second chasm, in this case between the “1 percent” and everyone else, with disparities not seen since the Gilded Age. Not all this was Bush’s fault. The reckless deregulating started with his predecessors, including Clinton. And Bush’s talk of an “ownership society” was in keeping with the dot-com and real-estate bubbles, and the rise of “personal investors” lured by climbing stock prices. But as the financial crisis worsened, Bush was slow to react, in part because his authority had been undermined by his failures in Iraq, along with his confused response to Hurricane Katrina. The “capital” he boasted he would spend after his reelection, a legitimate win, instead petered out; his repudiation was sealed by the Democrats’ sweeping victories in 2006 and 2008.
WHICH LEADS, inevitably, to the latest Bush aspirant and his prospects. Will Jeb prove to be 41’s son or 43’s brother? His résumé is more like his father’s, though on the surface, George W. seems the closer copy: the elite boarding school, Yale—and then, topping Dad, Harvard Business School. But in adhering so closely, George W. skipped the risk-and-adventure stage. He only flirted with rebellion, while Jeb showed true independence, bypassing Yale for the University of Texas (and getting his degree in two and a half years, like his father) and then spending two years in Caracas, as the branch officer of a bank, before going to Florida to help with his father’s presidential campaign in 1980. Settling there—and getting into real estate, instead of oil like his father and his brother—signaled the next phase of the Bush family’s political homesteading.
And there is the question of Jeb’s ideological conviction. Like his father and brother, he has combined various strands of conservatism and emphasized different ones at different times. Limbaugh is right that Jeb’s positions on immigration and Common Core are liabilities at a moment when the GOP base has grown impatient with Beltway leaders too willing to negotiate with Obama after the party’s sweeping midterm victory. Jeb, too, seems conciliatory or at least circumspect. But if the economy continues to improve, Obama could leave office as a relatively popular president, as Clinton did in 2000, despite having been impeached. George W. Bush, grasping this, “cunningly presented himself as Bill Clinton’s heir,” as David Frum wrote in 2008. Jeb is better positioned than most other Republicans to do the same in 2016.
A few years ago, the prospect of a third Bush in the White House would have alarmed Republicans as well as Democrats, but that was before the dismal spectacle of 2012. Jeb’s announcement, whatever it leads to, has already spared the GOP a third Mitt Romney campaign. Nevertheless, it is true that Jeb risks being depicted as Romney redux, palatable to Democrats and independents but anathema to his own party. But unlike Romney, Jeb can point to his earlier “head-banging” self, who first ran for governor (and lost) in 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich and other Southern Republicans captured the House, climaxing an intraparty insurgency Gingrich had begun to mount in 1990, when its target was . . . George H. W. Bush, who had compromised with Democrats on a budget. George W. Bush presented himself as both his father’s son and his opposite. Jeb may be able to do something similar—present himself as both the next Bush and the new, improved Bush. These adjustments are normal in the special world of dynastic politics. Franklin Roosevelt idolized his cousin Theodore but was also the ideological heir of TR’s progressive adversary Woodrow Wilson. John F. Kennedy spent much of his early career detaching himself from his father’s tarnished legacy as an accused Nazi “appeaser” even as Joseph Kennedy was grooming him for the presidency.