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The Unbearable Burden of Being Jeb Bush

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Jeb Bush is asking us to do the impossible -- forget that he’s the son of one president and the brother of another. 

“I’m my own man,” he protested at a much-heralded meet-the-Bush-you-don't-know speech on foreign affairs in Chicago on Wednesday.

Alas, this declaration of independence didn't withstand his first major effort to address the dynasty question. Instead of getting us to see a different kind of Bush, he reminded us that his big brother had made precisely the same point in almost the same language at roughly the same juncture in an election. And George W. was half right. When it came to separating from his father, he was his own man. He may have taken the separation business a bit too far, however, leaving his real dad so far behind in favor of a surrogate father, Dick Cheney.  

As Jeb wages his own struggle with his last name, his problem isn't so much to differentiate himself from his father's one-term presidency as it is to avoid reminding voters of the trauma of the eight years his brother was in office.

You have to follow the bouncing Bushes here. George W. played out the father problem, treating dad's presidency as a template for what not to do. No way did he approve of Dad resisting calls to take the Gulf War beyond Kuwait, or doing the right thing by raising taxes to tackle dangerous deficits. For his trouble Dad got booted out of office. 

George W. got to act out his separation fantasies after Sept. 11. Whether he was overcompensating psychologically or politically for his father’s alleged wimpiness, or merely acting under bad-dad Cheney’s influence, George W.  undertook the disastrously misbegotten invasion and occupation of Iraq, a catastrophe that would define his presidency.

We still live with the consequences -- and Jeb is left with some explaining to do, even as his brother peacefully whiles away the days with his paints and brushes in his art studio in Texas.

In his Chicago speech, there was a brief moment when it looked as if Jeb might admit that George W. had made a boo-boo in Iraq even if it was couched in an unsatisfying mistakes-were-made way.

“There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure," Jeb declared. But then he quickly blame-shifted, attributing the mistakes in question to the “intelligence community in multiple countries” whose information on weapons of mass destruction turned out “not to be accurate.” In any case, he added, whatever mistakes were made under his brother's watch were mere peccadillos compared with the mess President Barack Obama has made by withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Slam-dunk. 

Jeb isn't the first presidential hopeful to be burdened with an albatross of a brother. Think beer pitchman Billy Carter or rock musician/felon Roger Clinton, named Headache by the Secret Service on account of all the trouble he stirred up. For much of his adult life, W. seemed on the road to becoming a rich man’s Billy Carter -- and these days, Jeb is probably wishing he had kept on that path. But instead George W. stopped drinking, found religion and the rest is history -- ours unfortunately. By and large  presidential siblings only hurt themselves, not the candidate or the country. W. is a one-man WMD for Jeb.

That his older brother got to the White House first must be particularly galling for Jeb, who was groomed as the good brother who was destined to go furthest. George was the party-hearty sort during the first 20 years of a checkered career, coasting through school on the gentleman's C plan, getting bailed out of oil busts. Meanwhile, Jeb worked hard and played by the rules.

As his dad advised, Jeb made his fortune before making a bid for office, and slowly climbed the party ladder in South Florida. Then, W.'s career took a sudden spike upward when he became part owner of the Texas Rangers. He won his 1994 race to become Texas governor in a walk. That same year, Jeb lost his first bid for governor in Florida. Barbara Bush went around exclaiming, "Can you believe it?"

By the time Jeb won, in 1999, it was too late. In 2000, he was relegated to the post of warm-up act, introducing W. as "my older, smarter and wiser brother." George joked that if Jeb didn't deliver the Sunshine State, he'd "be washing my car over vacation." 

Scrubbing George's pickup  might have been preferable  to the self-abnegation that was in store for Jeb. The vote in Florida seesawed with W. naming his brother “the controlling legal authority,” a role the governor-brother initially shunned but eventually accepted. "I can't recuse myself from my constitutional duties as governor," he said. "I can't recuse myself frankly of being my brother's brother, either."

The longer the recount went on, the more Florida came in for ridicule for its seniors who drive too slowly, eat too early and can manage 12 bingo cards but not a butterfly ballot. Antiquated voting machines churned out chads, raising suspicion that the Bush clan had rigged the election like some banana republic dynasty.

At one point, consideration was given to the idea of resolving the recount by Jeb naming a slate of electors to defeat the popular vote, which would have made him the first governor to award the presidency to his own brother. Instead, Jeb punted to Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who relished the fight. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court pulled George across the finish line. 

The good news for Jeb is that unlike Billy Carter and Roger Clinton, George seems happy to stay out of the spotlight. Maybe in exchange for his continued silence, Jeb can promise George that he will be commissioned to execute the official portrait of the 45th president.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

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