Will America close the books on the Bush dynasty when George W. leaves office in January? Or is it still possible that his younger brother, Jeb, will rise from the ashes of the second Bush presidency -- perhaps even as part of the Bush clan’s ongoing duel with the House of Clinton?
While one should never say never in politics, such a rematch in 2012 or 2016 is beginning to seem extremely unlikely. Even Jeb himself apparently regards prospects for a Bush resurrection as largely hopeless. To understand why, one needs to look more closely at the relationship between George and Barbara Bush’s two eldest sons.
George Walker, 61, and John Ellis Bush (who turns 55 Monday) have long been their family’s principal rivals, and by various accounts they are not close. In 2004, George W. told Brit Hume of Fox News that he and Jeb speak by phone only about once a month. The competition is not always obvious because of the way George and Jeb function as allies when the family enterprise’s collective interests are at stake, as they did in the 2000 Florida recount. But as a factor in George’s own drive to succeed, sibling rivalry has been second only to his relationship with his father. And in a way, it is the primary expression of it, because the ultimate stake in the rivalry was inheritance of their father’s mantle.
George W. was always keenly aware, according to friends and family members, that Jeb was viewed the smarter of the two. Jeb, for his part, has always known that the cousins, aunts and uncles like Junior better. Jeb is relentlessly focused, introverted and serious. Though his political future was regarded as the most promising by the rest of the family, he has never had the glib banter or the gift for friendship of his older brother.
Asked in 1987 how the brothers were different, Jeb responded: “George is the tightest with his money, that’s for sure. He’s always been very careful. Marvin [the youngest brother] is the most personable, and he has this great sense of humor. I’m the serious one.”
Jeb in many ways behaves more like a firstborn than a younger sibling. He was born into a more settled and established family that had moved beyond the crisis of their sister Robin’s death from leukemia, an event that profoundly affected George. Jeb faced no apparent learning disabilities or struggles with self-control of the kind his older brother did. But somehow Jeb absorbed George’s portion of care, while George pranced off with Jeb’s share of worldly ease. Where George slacked, Jeb drove as hard as he could. Jeb has never played the game of diminishing expectations -- or many other games either.
Though both brothers tried to follow their father’s example in various ways, Jeb’s emulation appeared, for many years, far more successful. Jeb married young, as his father did, and got through the University of Texas in just 2 1/2 years. (Dad made it through Yale in three.) Married at 21, he was a father at 23. While George was floundering in the oil business, drilling dry holes back in the town where they grew up, Jeb was getting ahead in banking and real estate. In choosing Florida over Texas, he followed their father’s script more cleverly. Miami in the early 1980s offered the kind of opportunity that Midland, Texas, had for his father in the 1950s.
Soon after his arrival there, Jeb tellingly described Miami as “the frontier” in relation to Texas, which had in the intervening decades become a place where social snobbery and established hierarchies made it hard for his wife, a Mexican immigrant, and his family to fit in.
Florida in the 1980s, like Texas in the 1960s, was a Democratic state poised to turn Republican, with a group of feverish conservatives -- the Cuban exiles -- leading the charge. Like his dad and unlike his impatient older brother, Jeb was happy to endure a dry policy discussion and a political slog. Rather than start with Congress, he ran in 1983 for Dade County Republican Party chairman, a position in which he served as a bridge between the new extremists and the national party establishment -- just as his father had for members of the John Birch Society in Harris County, Texas, in the early 1960s.
To ally himself with them, Jeb positioned himself well to the right. “I’m a hang-'em-by-the-neck conservative,” he declared. When Bob Martinez was elected governor of Florida in 1986, Jeb moved to Tallahassee to become Florida’s secretary of commerce.
By that point, the Bush parents had come to focus on Jeb as the family’s next-generation political leader. After George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, they looked to Jeb as their best hope for vindication. Jeb’s position as favorite son rankled his brother, and people I’ve spoken to who know the president well speculate that it was a factor in George’s effort to pull his life together at age 40, when he found God and quit drinking.
In politics, George would often drop comments that suggested he measured himself principally in relation to Jeb. Asked once on the campaign trail what he was going to do for “the little guy,” he responded: “I am the little guy. Jeb is 6-4. I am only 5-11.”
When George first proposed running for governor of Texas in 1990, his parents strongly opposed the idea. When he returned to the idea in 1994, they reacted the same way. Barbara Bush, in particular, worried that George’s campaign would drain money and attention away from Jeb’s contest for the governorship in Florida, according to Doug Wead, an aide to the father who became close to George around that time. When George chose to run despite their objections, the parents expected, as did others in the family, that he would lose to Ann Richards and that Jeb would defeat Lawton Chiles. When George won and Jeb lost, their positions were reversed.
In the hotel suite in Houston where George was celebrating, his aunt, Nancy Ellis, heard him speaking to his father over the phone. “Why do you feel bad about Jeb?” he asked his dad, according to one biography of the family. “Why don’t you feel good about me?” Such feelings notwithstanding, primogeniture -- inheritance by the firstborn son -- was now restored. By the time Jeb was elected Florida governor in 1998, his brother was already planning his own presidential campaign.
As the second Bush presidency grinds to its dismal conclusion, both Jeb and his parents seem to think that George’s mistakes have destroyed the second son’s chances of ever occupying the White House, family friends say. Jeb was merely recognizing reality when he opted not to run for president in 2008. While a campaign in 2012 or beyond is theoretically possible, Jeb says he has no interest and complains that no one will believe him.
Among those who don’t want to take no for an answer is his brother the president, for whom, ironically, Jeb’s election would provide a measure of historical vindication.
While Jeb seems resigned to abandoning politics, family friends have described his parents as devastated that the older son spiked the chances of the younger one. In December 2006, the former president gave a glimpse of this when he paid tribute to his second son at a ceremony to mark the end of Jeb’s two terms as governor. Bush began to crack when talking about Jeb’s 1994 defeat, and how his son didn’t whine or complain about the unfair attacks on him in the election. “The true measure of a man is ... " Bush tried to say, now openly sobbing as Jeb approached to comfort him, " ... is how you handle victory ... and also defeat.”
Jeb, the obedient son, the one who was supposed to be president, who even after George Junior’s election was regarded as a potential third in the line, now faces a political impasse. His older brother dashed ahead and blew up the bridge behind him. At this point, not many people inside or outside the family think it can be rebuilt.