NEW YORK - It’s hard to be a Bush these days. Liberals still condemn the most recent President Bush for “lying us into war” in Iraq. Even if you credit George W. Bush with benign intentions, his record is undeniably grim. In foreign policy, fiscal policy and much else — including its catastrophic inattention to the aims and capabilities of Osama bin Laden and to the desperate pleas of a drowning city — his administration was mostly a disaster.
Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is easily mocked. He raised an enormous sum in pursuit of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The famed “Bush family network” was activated. Yet the candidate was flat-footed and outmatched in debate against an opponent who proved spectacularly ignorant of public issues and whose most sophisticated techniques amounted to playground taunts. Bush’s remarkable fundraising and unquestioned expertise got him nowhere.
Then there’s Poppy. George H.W. Bush is 92 now, a remnant of a political era long passed. The news — occasioned by an indiscreet Kennedy no less — that he intends to vote for Hillary Clinton rather than his party’s nominee is likely welcome in Donald Trump’s camp. An old, out-of-touch blue blood who summers in Kennebunkport and embodies the ethos of an internationalist corporate and diplomatic elite is a perfect foil for Trump’s crude aggression.
Supporting the Bushes in their opposition to Trump requires defining what it is that Bush-like politicians are supposed to possess that Trump so thoroughly lacks. Expertise is the obvious first answer. (Even the least competent of the three, George W., had been governor of a large state.) Decorum is another. But the Bush resistance to their party’s nominee appears grounded in political morality, which is more difficult to parse, and defend.
After all, who are these Bushes to convey distaste for the rough-and-tumble of Trump’s ambition? Are they offended by Trump’s raw, racist appeals? George H.W. Bush gave us a racist meme, courtesy of professional race-baiter (and late-inning penitent) Lee Atwater, that endures decades after the 1988 campaign in which it was unleashed: “Willie Horton.” George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign in South Carolina spread racist rumors about the family of Bush’s opponent, Sen. John McCain.
And these people think they’re too pure for Trump’s brand of politics?
It’s difficult to explain why the answer to that question is a resounding, unequivocal “Yes.” It requires resort to context and motive and relativism. It occupies a gray, middling realm in a political environment dominated by magnetic poles of black and white. It’s a challenge similar to differentiating Hillary Clinton’s occasional tactical dissembling and even rarer personal fibs from Trump’s habitual dishonesty about nearly everything — the state of the nation and the world, his record, his business and wealth, his opponents, his plans, objective reality. It’s far easier to say, “Both candidates lie.”
The Bushes have been ambitious men. They have amassed wealth. They wanted power. They sought acclaim. They occasionally sunk low in pursuit of these things.
In that, they are no different from Trump. What separates them, and no doubt inspires their contempt for Trump, is that they are more than the sum of their personal appetites. George H.W. Bush nearly died in service to his country. He served in various government and party capacities, developing expertise over many decades that enlarged his character and informed his presidency.
Jeb Bush was a successful two-term governor of one of the nation’s largest and most complex states, navigating diverse constituencies and thorny issues. He developed a reputation as a capable policy wonk. After his governorship he got rich. But he also continued to educate himself in preparation for a higher office that, he understood, demands higher qualities.
George W. Bush was the least distinguished of the three. But if he was crushed by the weight of his office at a critical time in history, it was partly because he tried to shoulder that weight to begin with. He believed it was his responsibility to carry the nation, not just himself.
Over seven full decades, Trump’s selfishness has never been tempered by service or even the barest preparation for service. Whatever you think of the Bush men, it’s inconceivable that they would design a fake university dedicated to ripping off poor people who were desperate for a leg up. They would not establish a sham foundation to advance their personal interests under the guise of public spiritedness. And it’s impossible to imagine any of them waging the relentless race-based campaign that Trump has run from the moment he announced his candidacy. To the Bushes, the presidency was more than a prize to be captured and exploited for personal gain and self-aggrandizement.
You have to be personally ambitious, occasionally ruthless, to seek the presidency, and to win it. Each of the Bush men, in turn, fit that bill. But you don’t have to be sleazy or a demagogue. That’s where a family of presidents parts ways with Donald Trump.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View.