He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Big Brother Makes Jeb Bush Look Small

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It was the mystery of the 2016 presidential campaign: Why wasn't Jeb Bush, who seemed a shoo-in for the Republican nomination and has the resources to go all the way, doing better in polls and primaries? In North Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday night, I got my answer.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

Bush, who at first seemed unsure whether his last name was an asset or a liability -- his posters, after all, just say "Jeb!" -- has increasingly brought his family into his campaign in recent weeks. Barbara Bush, his mother, came to New Hampshire. On Monday, his older brother George W. Bush went to bat for him at the North Charleston Convention Center -- and stole the show. In fact, his appearance was such a triumph that it became obvious that Jeb didn't quite measure up to the ex-president, for whom many Republicans feel nostalgia.

In the crowd of 2,000, I found myself standing next to Jim Zielinski, 66. He told me that his son, a West Point graduate, had been among the first U.S. troops to enter Iraq. The Army Ranger spent 15 months there, was in combat and was fortunate to come home intact. A year ago, Zielinski asked George W. Bush to sign a copy of his book, "Decision Points," at a trade event. He said he mentioned his son's service. "He spoke warmly of people like my son," Zielinski said. "That was special to me. He really supported the troops."

A veteran himself, Zielinski said he wasn't sure who he would back in South Carolina's Republican primary on Saturday: He was down to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, having dismissed Donald Trump as too centered on "the anger, not the promise" of America. He cheered loudly, along with many others, as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham introduced the ex-president, thanking him for "keeping us safe" after the Sept. 11  attacks and "taking the fight to America's enemies."

George W. Bush immediately had the audience in his grip. He was relaxed and self-deprecating about his post-presidency downtime, which he called "the afterlife." "Laura and I became tree farmers," he said. "It gave me time to practice my stump speech. And I surprised everyone by becoming an oil painter. Don't worry, I know the signature is worth more than the paintings."

The crowd hushed as he recalled hearing about the Sept. 11 attacks as he read to a child in a Florida classroom. "My first reaction was hot: 'We're gonna deal with these people,'" he said. "Then my job became crystal clear: To protect that girl, her community and her country. I made a lot of tough calls, every one of them with an image of that child in my mind."

The ex-president's political craft was on full display. His speech was an exercise in not-so-subtle evasion: He never uttered Trump's name, though it was clear that he was referring to his brother's rival when he said, to laughter and applause, "Labels are for soup cans." And he avoided any mention of Iraq. He knows that even his supporters are uncertain about that war now. "The jury is still out on it," Zielinski told me, adding that it had been a mistake to pull out U.S. troops from Iraq once they were in.

But avoiding the most disastrous decision of his presidency was just fine with the Republican audience: These people had backed the intervention at the time. People don't like being reminded of their mistakes.

"Laura and I don't really miss our time in the White House," the ex-president said at one point. "We miss you!" the audience erupted. It was a spontaneous, wistful moment.

Yet George W. Bush isn't running for president, his brother is. And when Jeb Bush took the floor, it was an anticlimax. He went through his stump speech, lashing out at Trump, promising support to the military and to small business, listing again his achievements as governor of Florida. Many in the audience had heard all this during Republican debates. The candidate was earnest and fluent, but he wasn't one with his audience the way his brother had been. It was impossible not to recall one of George W. Bush's jokes: "Like me, Jeb is a grandfather. He is known as Gampy, I'm known as El Jefe."

The difference in charisma was palpable. It was as if the temperature in the room had come down 10 degrees.

To many Republicans, membership in the Bush family is not a stigma. They are willing to accept on faith that Bush 43 only made honest mistakes as he did his best to protect the country. The crowd clapped and cheered when Graham said, "I don't know about you, but I like the Bushes." In that sense, enlisting his family's help is a good move on Jeb Bush's part, though it may be too late to save his campaign. Yet this tactic is also hurting Jeb: Although the ex-president lovingly calls him "my big little brother," the candidate is too obviously just the little brother when they're on the same stage.

When the speeches were over, I asked Zielinski whether Jeb had won him over. The Charleston native just shrugged his shoulders. "We'll see." 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net