Former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush join Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush at a campaign rally in Charleston, S.C.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The former president acknowledges the crowd while Jeb Bush speaks.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Supporters of the Bush family listen to the national anthem.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
George W. Bush enjoys the moment.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A George W. Bush supporter at the campaign rally for Jeb Bush.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
George W. Bush on the campaign trail.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
George W. Bush waves goodbye after campaigning for his brother in Charleston, S.C.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jeb Bush greets supporters.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Former President George W. Bush takes a picture with a supporter.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jeb Bush among supporters.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
He left office seven years ago, settling into a retirement of writing and painting, carefully maintaining a vow to leave politics and the conflicts of campaigning behind.
But family comes first, and George W. Bush emerged from his quiet life in Dallas on Monday and returned to the political stage in South Carolina, a state that resuscitated his White House aspirations in 2000.
This time he was on another rescue mission, for his younger brother, Jeb, and a once-promising candidacy now in grave peril.
The older Bush made his return less than 48 hours after the front-runner for the Republican nomination had publicly labeled him a failure and said his administration had lied about the Iraq war.
Looking relaxed in slacks, an open-collar shirt and a sports coat with a Jeb Bush campaign sticker, the former president was met with roars of approval at the convention center here. He displayed the easy charm that had won him two terms, telling 3,000 supporters that his brother had the steady hand the country needed in a time of uncertainty at home and upheaval abroad.
The appearance of Bush made for a striking, perhaps unprecedented moment in campaign history; another former two-term president, Bill Clinton, will be in the state Tuesday campaigning for his wife, Hillary, in the Democratic primary, which falls seven days after the Republicans vote on Saturday.
“I’ve seen in my brother a quiet conviction and a core conscience that cannot be shaken, and my hope is that the people of South Carolina will see this as well,” he said with his trademark Texas twang. “This is a serious election for a serious job, so please welcome a serious and thoughtful candidate, a good man, a man I am proud to call my big little brother Jeb Bush.”
Jeb Bush entered the presidential campaign determined to demonstrate that he was his own man, separate from his brother and his father, former President George H.W. Bush. But as the onetime presumed front-runner failed to gain traction with voters, he has called in his family in recent weeks to revive his efforts to set himself up as the establishment alternative to Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.
Buoyed by the passage of time, the deeply polarizing president is the most popular he has been since leaving office. More than three-quarters of GOP voters view the nation’s 43rd president favorably in a November Bloomberg poll.
But his legacy remains fiercely disputed. In Saturday night’s GOP debate in Greenville, S.C., Trump called him a liar who failed to keep the nation safe, could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks and destabilized the Middle East by invading Iraq — charges he repeated during a news conference Monday in Hanahan, S.C.
The audience at the debate loudly booed Trump for disparaging Bush.
Bush did not address Trump’s criticism, but he did recount the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he learned of the attack while listening to a child read at a Florida elementary school. He did not directly denounce any of his brother’s GOP rivals, or Democrats. But he appeared to allude to Trump as he addressed the qualities voters should look for as they elect a new president.
“These are tough times. I understand Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration,” he said. “We need someone who can fix the problems that cause our anger and frustration, and that’s Jeb Bush.”
“I love the family and I admire them a lot and I just think Jeb would be a great president. He’s got the background,” said the 69-year-old Spartanburg, S.C., resident.
This marshy state, with a large military presence and veteran population, revived Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 amid false smears spread by Bush allies that rival John McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. (The Arizona senator and his wife adopted a daughter from Bangladesh.)
“Southerners, especially South Carolinians, we like to take care of our own. We feel as though we have some ownership of George W.'s political success,” said Hogan Gidley, a GOP strategist in Columbia, S.C., who is neutral in the campaign. “We helped him resurrect his campaign to the nomination here in South Carolina, so he’s one of ours.”
Leigh Ann Gailes, 55, said Bush’s speech resonated with her.
“He stirs you and I really do appreciate that he was my president,” said the veteran and travel nurse who lives in Charleston.
Bush met with veterans and Gov. Nikki Haley earlier in the day in Columbia.
He had cut radio ads and headlined closed-door fundraisers for Jeb Bush before making this public appearance. The former president has said previously he didn’t believe it was appropriate for him to insert himself into affairs of state, and preferred spending his days in Dallas working for wounded veterans and taking up his new avocation of oil painting.
His disappearance also reflected the reality that voters viewed him as a pariah in the immediate aftermath of his two terms, when the nation was struggling through an economic recession.
“He has gone out of his way to avoid being in the limelight because he didn’t think that was his place, but when your brother is running for the leader of the free world, you make an exception,” said Reed Galen, a Republican strategist who worked on both of Bush’s presidential campaigns and in his administration. “If he’s the biggest gun you have in your arsenal, there’s no reason not to roll him out now.”
Bush displayed the folksy charm he is known for — and his brother is not — recalling campaigning in South Carolina and making self-deprecating jokes about himself. He noted that he wrote two books since leaving office, surprising those who thought he couldn’t read.
“I’ve been misunderestimated most of my life,” Bush said, repeating a Bush-ism from a 2000 speech.