Jeb, dragging his wilted exclamation point around, is so boring that it’s hard to focus on the epic nature of his battle.
Not the battle against Donald Trump, although his beat-down by Trump is garishly entertaining. I’m talking about the Brooks Brothers “Game of Thrones” family tangle.
As much as Poppy Bush scoffs at “the D-word,” as he calls any reference to dynasty, the Bushes do consider themselves an American royal family. They have always pretty much divided the world into Bushes and the help. The patriarch once sent me a funny satire referring to himself and Barbara as the Old King and Queen, W. as King George of Crawford and Jeb as the Earl of Tallahassee.
At 91, 41 is living to see Jebbie become president. He is mystified by a world in which Trump, whom he considers a clown, could dethrone the crown prince.
Jeb said in New Hampshire that Poppy is prone to throw his shoe at the TV when Trump comes on. Fortunately, the former president always has very stylish socks.
Some of Jeb’s disillusioned donors are hanging on just because they can’t bear to shatter the old man’s illusions. How can America be rewarding the wrong dynasty – Little Rock over Kennebunkport?
As Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer recently wrote in The Times, Poppy and Bush retainers like John Sununu are bewildered by a conservative electorate that rejects Republican primogeniture, prefers snark to substance and embraces an extremely weird brain surgeon and an extravagantly wild reality show star.
When the Bushes had to stick a shiv in the ribs of their foes, they behaved like gentlemen and outsourced it to henchmen. They can’t fathom a world where that vulgarian Trump is doing his own dirty work.
Trump has gotten into Jeb’s head, making Jeb so petulant he declared he had “a lot of really cool things” he could be doing instead, when we all know he doesn’t.
For Bushworld, this was the election where the Cain-and-Abel drama of W. and Jeb would finally have a happy ending.
I covered the Jeb and Junior sibling smashdown from the start. In 1993, I went on the road to watch Jeb run for governor in Florida and W. run for governor in Texas.
Barbara had blurted out to W. that he shouldn’t run because he couldn’t win. And when I talked to Jeb, he seemed annoyed that his older brother had jumped into the race in Texas because it turned it into “a People magazine story.”
But W. had spent his rowdy 20s and 30s living with the unpleasant fact that even though he was the oldest, his parents assumed Jeb had the bright political future. At 47, with his drinking days behind him and Laura beside him, he was ready to cash in on the family name and money and make his move.
It was soon clear to me that the Good Son was not as scintillating a campaigner as the Prodigal Son. W. didn’t know the issues and he had a spiteful side, but he was the one with the crackle.
When Jeb came up with a line on the trail in Florida that worked, W. just swiped it. When Jeb said, “I am running for governor not because I am George and Barbara Bush’s son; I am running because I am George P. and Noelle and Jeb’s father,” W. began saying: “I am not running for governor because I am George Bush’s son. I am running because I am Jenna and Barbara’s father.” Karl Rove laughed about the shoplifting.
Jeb was the image of his mother, especially when he smiled, but his pragmatic political temperament was more like his father’s, even though he never had his dad’s manic “ants on a hot pan” energy. W. looked like his father but got his acerbic streak from his mother.
On election night, W. was steamed that his father seemed more upset by Jeb’s loss than excited by his oldest son’s win. Not only did W. shock his family by making it to the Oval Office before Jeb. In the tie election, Jeb had to be prodded into helping his brother snatch Florida away from Al Gore.
This was going to be the year that settled sibling scores. Jeb would get what his parents considered his birthright.
Even though the brothers are not particularly close, and W.’s tragic overinvolvement in the Middle East and tragic underinvolvement in Katrina did not make him a campaign asset, somehow Jeb kept wrapping himself around W.’s axle – and his Axis of Evil.
When Jeb was first asked if it had been a good idea to invade Iraq, he gave four different answers. Then he said he wouldn’t rule out torture and thought getting rid of Saddam was “a pretty good deal.” And he couldn’t stop bragging about how his brother kept America safe, even though Trump correctly noted that W. was not on the ball leading up to 9/11. And, of course, W.’s two misbegotten wars have been recruiting boons for terrorist fiends.
Jeb explained away his shambling, shrinking campaign by saying he was a doer, not a performer. But the main thing he was doing was helping to rehabilitate his brother’s pockmarked reputation.
W. headlined a fundraiser at a Georgetown home Thursday night. When he came out, a TMZ camera captured him jovially signing autographs for people waiting on the street and calling out as he drove away, “Don’t put that on eBay.”
On Friday morning, the chatterers were comparing the stiff Jeb to the loosey-goosey W., gushing with the mistaken cliché that W. is comfortable in his own skin. It was the ultimate vindication for W. His parents had been wrong all along. Jeb wasn’t the Natural on the trail. He was.
Some Jeb! campaign officials think he should “kiss off Iowa,” as one put it, where he’s flatlining, and put the emphasis on New Hampshire, setting the stage for South Carolina. “That’s what 41 did when Bob Dole was winning Iowa,” said one family friend. The Bushworld veterans think that someone gave Jeb bad advice about trying to put his protégé Marco Rubio in his place at the debate.
“It looked out of character for him,” one said. “He looked like he was a little lost when Marco came back at him.”
Jeb’s loyalists are urging reporters to point out, as one asserted, that Trump would be “a catastrophe for the country.”
They also think Jeb has to be more self-deprecating, because he has no choice, and stress his Latino support.
Before the debate debacle, the joyless candidate had been doubling down on his promise to be joyful, proclaiming on NewsmaxTV, “I’m having a blast” and “I’m in phenomenal shape for an old 62-year-old guy. In fact, I think we ought to have five-hour debates.”
But this campaign has been defined by Trump parachuting in, like an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, and disrupting the royal coronation. Jeb had been out of politics for eight years and he strolled back, mistakenly assuming that the vassals were waiting eagerly to hail him.
With Trump belittling him for being low energy and running to Mommy and Daddy for help, Jeb realized he was in a new world.
His brother’s muscle-bound presidency led to Barack Obama, and the diffident Obama led to a new brand of furious, Tea Party-infused Republicans.
While Jeb was offstage, the whole party and political environment had passed him by. He came back looking very ‘90s. He’s talking about pragmatic government at a time when the drivers in his party are talking about tearing it down.
Jeb is trapped in a nightmarish déjà vu. Once he was cast as the wonky one while his brother, the sparky one, slipped ahead. Now Jeb is cast as the wonky one while Marco, the sparky one, slips ahead.
Jeb got confused. He thought he was still in an era when people had to pay their dues.