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Outlook: If Jeb Were President

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S.V. Date
Palm Beach Post
Monday, January 22, 2007; 11:00 AM

Palm Beach Post Political Reporter S.V. Date was online Monday, Jan. 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article comparing the styles of brothers Jeb and George W. Bush and imagining how the latter might have handled the trials of the former.

What Would Jeb Do?, ( Post, Jan. 21)

The transcript follows.

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S.V. Date: Good morning, all, and thank you for your interest.

I will be honest -- as Jeb Bush's least favorite reporter in the state, I've been overwhelmed at how many folks took what I meant as a political analysis of Jeb as a candidate and a potential president (and I will call him Jeb, and the president "George W., not out of disrespect, but as a shorthand; this is what happens when your family is bent on global domination, and there are so many Bushes....) instead as an endorsement. Anyway. Let's get started.

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Washington: As a high school student in Miami I worked for Jeb Bush's real estate company and met him on several occasions. While my politics did not mirror his, I always found him to be very respectful of all his employees and attuned to details. Your analysis fails to take serious enough account of how badly President Bush has tarnished the Bush political brand. You treat this as a throwaway concern in your article. Jeb's older brother has ruined his chances of becoming president. To think otherwise is to ignore every single poll re: President Bush that has been released in the past year.

S.V. Date: That's a good question, and one asked by many others. The important thing to remember is that we don't elect a president by national election, but a series of state elections. And the fact remains that, as a Republican, if you can lock down Florida, hold Texas and the South -- you're more than halfway there. Jeb can do these things. That makes him a strong candidate.

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Silver Spring, Md. : I think Date's article on Jeb Bush left out one damaging incident -- his handling of the Terry Schiavo case. He came across as an ideological zealot who brushed aside any medical findings at odds with his beliefs.

S.V. Date: Terri Schiavo is indeed a telling episode, and one I talked about a lot in the book. But I see it not just as proof to how beholden he is to the Christian conservative wing of the party, but also as revealing insight into his character. Jeb can be incredibly vindictive. After Terri had died, Jeb called for a criminal investigation into her husband for her death, questioning his account of what happened 15 years earlier. The state attorney in the case told him: thanks, but no thanks. But still, the governor going after Michael Schiavo like that -- it gave many Republicans in Florida the willies.

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Virginia: Do you think Jeb is more of a policy wonk while his brother George more of a politician?

S.V. Date: Jeb is both a policy wonk and a politician. This is what makes him such a force. He is competent and he has focus and he has a long attention span. So if you think George W. has been good for the country, then you should love Jeb -- because Jeb will do most of the same things, but more effectively. But if you think the president has been a disaster, then you should be terrified of a Jeb presidency.

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Anonymous: I once read in a book about the '60s a fan letter written to Paul McCartney by a fourteen year old girl the day after the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan. It was less cringe-inducing than your love letter to Jebbie. A couple of points: Your fantasy assumes that we did go to war, but your gooey drooling over George P. does not mention his military service. I guess some things are a constant in the Bush family. Also you mention Osama bin Laden's capture: Does this assume that Jeb would have appointed Condoleeza Rice as National Security Advisor, or some equally incompetent nitwit who like Rice would have ignored the warnings of George Tenet, Richard Clarke and all the others whose "hair was on fire" trying to get his brother's administration to pay attention to al-Qaeda before 9/11? Their incompetence allowed 3,000 Americans to be murdered in attacks that were predicted by intelligence services, official "bipartisan" received wisdom notwithstanding.

S.V. Date: I'm sorry. I've got to laugh about the love letter part ... Jeb banned me and my newspaper from a number of interviews held in a public building, in business hours, with the hope of getting me re-assigned.

Anyway -- my thoughts as to OBL being captured have to do with my view that Jeb would have remained focused on the target, the real target. I believe a president Jeb would have insisted on massive force at Tora Bora, and not outsourcing the job to the locals.

Yet he is also vindictive and has become hawkish -- hence my view that he probably would have invaded Iraq anyway.

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Colorado: You implicitly endorse school vouchers, call the Iraq War an "imperative," imply a connection between 9/11 and Iraq, and close your piece by suggesting that faced with a choice between the money-grubbing, entitled, theocratic Bush clan -- leaving aside the thousands of dead people and the contempt for the Constitution -- and those dirty dirty Clintons (dress stain! intern!), people will pick the Bushes. And you're surprised that people took this to be an endorsement of Jeb Bush?

S.V. Date: If I endorsed school vouchers, implicitly or otherwise, I categorically apologize. My articles about school vouchers are what irritated Jeb more than anything else. In my opinion, they were mismanaged beyond belief under Jeb -- never mind the fundamental question of using public money for religious schools. An entire chapter in my books is called Voucher Madness.

I re-read again the piece before coming on here, and I still cannot see how this can be read as an endorsement. That said, I do believe that Jeb remains a national political figure. Money is not everything in politics, but it's a huge thing. And the 30 percent of the people who still like his brother? They're the ones who disproportionately vote in Republican primaries.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Even Bushies used to state that Jeb was the smart one. I would then hit them with "so you gave us the dumb one to be President." But seriously, hasn't Jeb always been noted as being the more intelligent of the two?

S.V. Date: I don't know that I'm qualified to say who is more intelligent. The president is not a stupid man, and he's benefited immensely from people who think that he is.

No question -- George W. has never shown much interest in facts and history and public policy and such, and Jeb loves to show off how much he knows.

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Chevy Chase, Md.:"But if you think the president has been a disaster, then you should be terrified of a Jeb presidency."

This statement doesn't seem to jibe with your article. Didn't you postulate that with Jeb in the Presidency Osama would be captured by now and there would be 300,000 troops in Afghanistan? (The overwhelming force doctrine) If that has been the case wouldn't the Iraq fiasco been impossible?

S.V. Date: Yes, I postulated that Jeb would have overrun Afghanistan. And, having done that, would have done a much more thorough job of routing the Taliban.

But recall the 1993 attempted assassination of George H.W. in Kuwait. I cannot believe Jeb would have forgiven that. And, once all those troops were on the far side of the world -- really, why not make a quick stop in Iraq on the way home?

I never said this is a good thing. I'm just relaying to you how I believe Jeb would have seen things.

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Oxford, Miss.: Not that you're endorsing or recommending this at all but, man, am I tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton and now Jeb Bush. Isn't it time we start electing leaders from, oh I dunno, maybe a third family?

S.V. Date: The Kennedys?

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Paris, Miss.: I think the fact that so many people seem to have missed the hypothetical and the tongue-in-cheek nature of your piece underscores how much George W Bush has polarized and antagonized the electorate. You can't say something even relatively positive about his brother without getting half the country in a tizzy over it.

S.V. Date: Thank you. I appreciate that.

When I said that Jeb would take credit for the economy and attribute it to his tax cuts, I assumed that people would see that as akin to the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. In Florida, Jeb had the WORST job-creation record going back three decades. In fact, the best record belonged to Reubin Askew, who raised taxes the most, which sort of refutes the whole argument. I spend an entire chapter in the book talking about Jeb's tax policy: Let Them Eat Tax Cuts.

And you're right about the polarized nation. It's not a healthy situation, no.

It's funny, now that Jeb's gone, there's this weird bipartisan thing going on in Tallahassee right now.

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Washington: Very interesting article on Jeb Bush. What do you think the chances are that he will enter the 2008 presidential race?

S.V. Date: He will enter the race only if he thinks he can win the general election (because I think he believes he could win the nomination without breaking a sweat). For that to be possible, troops need to be on the way home by the end of the year.

It also would help immensely if Sen. Clinton appeared to be the Democratic frontrunner.

He might have personal issues with directly succeeding his brother, but the presidency is the presidency, and I think he understands that he cannot forgo credible opportunities.

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Savannah, Ga.: No real question, I suppose. But wow you've gotten some harsh commentary today. Endorsement? Maybe I just missed the endorsement? It is a little sad though ... the non-drunk-driving, no-cocaine-snorting (dare I even say -- good son?) has no chance. Much as I don't really agree with much he does politically, I almost feel sorry for him, playing second-string to George W. all these years.

S.V. Date: I understand what you mean. There is some elemental injustice in all this, from Jeb's point of view. He truly believes the work hard and play by the rules stuff (even though he fails to acknowledge the role of luck and the great benefit family name and wealth can play), so I almost feel sorry for him, too.

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Baltimore: There is no doubt, based on his record in Florida, that Jeb Bush is a better, more experienced administrator than his brother, who came from a state that has a weak executive power. But I must agree with the first poster that the complete incompetence of his elder brother will keep Jeb Bush from ever reaching the White House. Yes, nominations are won state by state, and Jeb I am sure will command loyalty from Republican primary voters, but the name Bush will be anathema to general-election voters for at least a generation after this inept presidency is finished. His one shot might be being named to someone's ticket as Veep on the grounds that he could bring lots of electoral votes from Florida. But as we have observed in recent very close presidential elections, Florida is changing politically. If Jeb had resigned and run for the Senate (instead of the absurd Katherine Harris) he might be in a different position.

S.V. Date: Jeb in a legislature? Even the the most exclusive one on the planet?

Uh, no. Jeb would not last a day in a body where he was one of 100. Not even one of 100, but the lowest of 100, given the importance of seniority.

As to whether he can ever run for the presidency because of his brother's popularity: How many people thought in 1991 that GHWB could possibly lose? How many people thought in 1995 that Bill Clinton could possibly win?

If George W. can start wrapping up Iraq in the next six months, I think his popularity will rise, and the Bush name will quickly lose its radioactivity.

It's astonishing, by the way, what $200 million worth of TV advertising will do for your name. Jeb could raise and spend that just in the primary season.

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Tampa, Fla.: WWJD? (What Would Jeb Do?) He'd appoint the same sort of incompetent, corrupt hacks that he's done here in Florida. Consider the Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. One of Jeb's appointees was caught running a gay porn business. Another one hired a big-time Republican lobbyist to help steer business to Jeb's campaign contributors. Another one fired their legal counsel and hired a well-connected (Republican connections, that is) law firm on a sweetheart retainer, paying them tens of thousands of dollars a month even if they do no work. Mike "Heckuva Job" Brown has nothing on these guys. Jeb would have staffed FEMA with the same sort of twits as did his brother, and Katrina would have been the same sort of debacle.

PS: What would the national press have made of his daughters' drug conviction and his wife being caught smuggling contraband into the US?

S.V. Date: Jeb had his share of incompetent appointees, no doubt. But part of that was because Jeb-the-micromanager thought he could actually run the entire state anyway, so it didn't really matter who he put in charge of these agencies. Of course he could not, and the chickens came home roost.

But I will respectfully disagree with your statement about FEMA. Jeb in Florida could have stacked the state emergency management office with friends and relatives of rich donors, but he did not. He kept a professional team that did a good job in Florida's hurricane years. That's a crucial distinction: when lives were on the line, Jeb valued competence.

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Arlington, Va.: I have always believed that if Jeb had won the Florida governorship in his first try, then he would have been elected instead of GW. Does Jeb have any bitter feelings that he is "the smart one" but his brother beat him to the Presidency almost by circumstance?

S.V. Date: There has been a long, intense sibling rivalry. Jeb was the number two brother, younger by seven years, but by his teens was physically larger than George W. In later years, he has always been quite directed about his life.

I'm sure he's not thrilled about how things turned out, but what can he do? It's his brother.

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Helena, Mont.:"If George W. can wrap up Iraq in 6 months" -- well, if wishes were horses, then beggars could ride. But this overlooks the "unitary executive" doctrine that Bush has used to run roughshod over the Constitution. I think the Bush name is forever tarnished not only with Iraq but with torture, no habeas corpus right, etc.

S.V. Date: You don't have to wrap up Iraq. You just have to start getting there.

You may be right about the tarnish, but I suspect that you are not. I have seen how Jeb ran roughshod over Florida's open government laws and ran the most secretive administration in recent history. Did anybody care? Nope. Just us whiny reporters and editorial writers.

Were it not for Iraq and Katrina, I cannot imagine that anyone in the nation would much care about those other things.

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Pittsburgh: Wouldn't Jeb's extreme anti-abortion views, coupled with his behavior in the Schiavo case, make him anathema to voters in a general election -- after George W. has fouled the political waters? And might there not be an anti-Catholic backlash against Jeb, especially for being a convert to Catholicism (as opposed to JFK, who was born and raised one)? Back when JFK ran he promised not to be influenced by the Vatican, but nowadays a Catholic politician undergoes immense conservative pressure for taking that stance (Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Pelosi).

S.V. Date: All these factors presumably would have mattered in Florida, which in many ways mirrors the national electorate. Yet none of this seemed to matter here in three elections.

Voters love the man. He is impressive, physically attractive, articulate and, when he wants, charming.

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Princeton, N.J.: Perhaps you think King John got a bad rap also what with Richard messing up the Kingdom and getting called "The Lion Heart."

S.V. Date: Perhaps I would have, had I paid more attention in either Brit Lit or history...

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Follow-up: You didn't answer: if Jeb ran for President, what would the national press have made of his daughter's drug conviction and his wife being caught smuggling contraband into the US?

S.V. Date: I didn't answer because his wife and his daughter are none of my business -- or yours. Near as I can tell, they are not running for anything.

Anyway, in the end, people will vote for the candidate, not for/against the family/spouse. Did many people in 2004 choose based on Mrs. Bush or Mrs. Heinz Kerry? I don't think so.

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Oakton, Va.: If Jeb doesn't run in 2008 what does he do to stay in the public eye and keep his hopes alive for 2012 or beyond?

S.V. Date: We have elected a new, extremely popular Republican governor in Florida who is about as different from Jeb as can be imagined.

I explored this in a piece I wrote for my own paper this weekend.

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Ogden, Utah: I put this question on the comments to your article and I'd love an answer: Your article postulates that Jeb did not get into the presidential running because he lost in Florida while GW won in Texas and, so, the US missed out on getting the more-qualified of the two as president. My question: Why does our system not select the more-qualified? Why was it so inevitable that the less-qualified would get the job? What's wrong with the system?

S.V. Date: I explore this somewhat in my book. The system does not guarantee anything. If more people had paid attention to George W.'s record in Texas prior to the 2000 election (rather than worrying about which candidate made up nicknames versus who wore earth tones), things might be different.

People seem to elect leaders based on who they would like to have a drink with at a bar. This is insane. We don't pick our accountant, pediatrician or lawyer this way, but we pick our president. Go to your neighborhood tavern: Any of those guys look presidential?

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S.V. Date: Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you all for your attention and time. You have been most gracious (well, most of you...) in your questions.

You can learn more about me and Jeb: America's Next Bush (no, the title is NOT an endorsement; the first sentence of my preface is: "Jeb Bush is going to hate this book.") at my web site.

There, you can even see a list of book tour appearances, where you can yell at me in person.

Thank you all again. I need to go do my day job....

All best,

S.V. Date

Tallahassee, Florida

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