Bush family’s return to the spotlight may benefit Jeb

It’s a big weekend for the Bush family, which is enjoying a renaissance of sorts after several years in the political wilderness.

Throngs of former administration officials, members of Congress and others descended Friday on College Station, Tex., to fete former president George H.W. Bush on the 25th anniversary of his arrival in office.

One of the highlights of the weekend will be a live interview with his son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has quietly been exploring a 2016 presidential campaign.

About 180 miles to the north, former president George W. Bush is hosting an event of a different sort: the opening of an exhibition of his paintings of world leaders, including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Bushes, one of America’s most prominent political dynasties, have spent the better part of the past few years under the radar after George W. Bush left office amid dismal approval ratings and as his father battled health problems.

The family’s surge back into the spotlight comes at an opportune time.

George H.W. Bush has seen his reputation morph during the past quarter century from a defeated one-term president who broke his promise on raising taxes to an esteemed leader who deftly steered the country out of the Cold War.

He also receives credit from members of both parties for his handling of the Persian Gulf war, for his role in passing the Americans With Disabilities Act and for laying the groundwork for a balanced budget under his successor, Bill Clinton.

“I think that we’re starting to get perspective on the George H.W. Bush presidency, and I think he looks better by the minute,” said Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. He is writing a book on the two Bush presidents.

“I think we understand the consequential nature of his presidency and how competently he led us during one term in office,” Updegrove said.

George W. Bush has also stepped back into the spotlight from a different place: his “man cave”-turned-painting studio, where he has spent the better part of the past few years creating portraits of world leaders.

An exhibit of some of the paintings, “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” opens Saturday and runs through June 3 at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Bush said Friday that his artistic turn was inspired in part by Winston Churchill’s essay “Painting as a Pastime.” He started by drawing stick figures on his iPad, then hired an art instructor to help release his latent talent.

“I said, ‘There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body, and it’s your job to unleash it,’” Bush said on NBC’s “Today” show Friday morning. The interviewer was friendly; it was yet another Bush — his daughter Jenna Bush Hager.

Bush also discussed the psychology of some of the leaders he painted. Putin, he said, “in many ways views the U.S. as an enemy, though he won’t say that.”

He also said Putin dismissed his beloved Scottish terrier, Barney, as not robust enough. Bush said he tried to capture those aspects of Putin in the painting, which depicts him with steely eyes and pursed lips.

“Anybody who thinks my dog is bigger than your dog is an interesting character,” Bush said.

Other presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Dwight D. Eisenhower, took up painting after the presidency, but none has put together a public exhibit of his work.

“It is an unusual decision,” said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. But, Mayer said, Bush “has never been a man absorbed with politics and policy.”

If any member of the family most benefits from the resurgence of the Bushes, it’s probably Jeb.

Many of the Republican party’s most powerful insiders and donors have started an under-the-radar effort to draft Jeb Bush as a 2016 candidate.

He has been described as a preferred candidate by many in the party’s establishment and has spent the past few months traveling the country in a possible attempt to lay the groundwork for a run.

Billionaire casino magnate and major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson held a VIP dinner for Bush last week in Las Vegas, where he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition, played golf and dined with potential donors.

A Bush spokeswoman has said he will make a decision on a potential candidacy by early next year.

Barbara Bush — who has long said she doesn’t want another member of her family to run for president — has recently moderated her stance, telling Fox News that “maybe it’s okay” if there is another Bush campaign in 2016.

The official spotlight for the weekend in College Station is on George H.W. Bush, whose legacy has been embraced lately more by Democrats than conservative Republicans..

“I just think that maybe a lot of Democrats are realizing, and maybe a little late, that he really was a great public servant, and he really was a great president,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, the soon-retired Democrat from Iowa, who appeared on a panel Friday afternoon at the Bush celebration to discuss the disabilities law. Other Democrats in attendance included former Wisconsin congressman David Obey.

Bush’s friend and former secretary of state James A. Baker said he is not surprised that Bush has been embraced by some Democrats.

“That’s what sometimes happens when you decide you’re going to govern instead of just being political,” Baker said in an interview.

Former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, who served as chief of staff for Bush, said the 41st president passed “more domestic legislation than any other president other than Roosevelt or Johnson,” including an amended Clean Air Act, deregulation of the electricity and natural gas industries and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Reached by telephone while at the gathering, Sununu said the atmosphere was nostalgic, like a college reunion. Events include a barbecue Saturday night with singer Clay Walker.

“There are a lot of people here” who realize they were part of “a very successful administration,” Sununu said.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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