COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — About 600 of George H.W. Bush’s closest friends, administration officials, political allies and family members headed to his presidential library in Texas this past weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his presidency. Familiar faces such as former secretary of state James Baker, ex-chief of staff John Sununu, and onetime vice president Dan Quayle spent the time reminiscing about their glory days, eating heaping plates of barbecue and listening to live country music played by Clay Walker and Garth Brooks.
“It’s like a combination between a college reunion and ‘The Big Chill,’ ” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime political director for the 41st president.
And no reunion would be complete without people falling into obvious tropes.
“This is going to be a conversation among a group of old dutters drinking vodka, scotch, Jack Daniel’s or, in [former national security adviser Stephen] Hadley’s case, slurping green tea.” — Robert Gates, former CIA director/defense secretary/class clown.
“Sorry, I’d love to talk, but I’m at Table One, and you know who sits there.” — Karl Rove, mastermind GOP operative/climber.
“Where did everybody go? I know they are around somewhere.” — Joe Trippi, token Democrat/dweeb.
Of course, 41, the man of honor, would have to be the class president. But it was his son Jeb who may have earned the best title of all: most likely to succeed.
At a packed town-hall meeting Sunday morning in College Station, Jeb said he would make a decision by the end of the year on jumping into the 2016 presidential race. Among the factors he was weighing: whether a candidate in this day and age could “run with a hopeful, optimistic message, hopefully with enough detail to give people a sense that it’s not just idle words and not get back into the vortex of the mud fight.” He added, “In my case, that means, can one do it joyfully without being tied to all the convention of the here and now?”
The Bushes are going through a renaissance of Matthew McConaughey-like proportions. The 89-year-old elder Bush has gone from a badly defeated one-term commander-in-chief to one of the most popular former presidents in decades. His son George W. reemerged into the public this past weekend as a painter (which of course doesn’t whitewash his presidency, but at least people aren’t talking about Iraq for a moment). And the rumblings on the sidelines for a 2016 run by Jeb are getting louder by the day — here’s a conservative governor with fundraising prowess, name recognition, love from the establishment and the ability to speak Spanish. With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s recent traffic-related scandals, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s diminished status among conservatives for his stance on immigration and a party divided on how they feel about the likes of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, many in the GOP are calling for a familiar face.
“I never lost the excitement about this family, so I don’t really notice the difference,” said Sununu, who is also a former governor of New Hampshire. “I suspect we’ll be seeing Jeb come visit us in New Hampshire after a while, and that’s when the real excitement will start.”
Ah, the joys of no longer being in elected office. The Bushes are getting the benefits of walking behind rose-colored windows. Bush Sr. lost in 1992 amid complaints that he didn’t care enough about domestic issues, and he didn’t win many conservative fans for his reversal of his oft-quoted line, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t helped the family brand, either. A recent Post-ABC poll found that half of all Americans say they “definitely would not” vote for another Bush as president.
“I’ve never actually believed that his name would drag him down,” said Kaufman, who in addition to working for 41 helped advise Mitt Romney on his 2012 presidential campaign. “Americans are so tired of a very broken system that they’d do anything, and give their vote to anybody — even Attila the Hun — if they think that person will bring competent leadership to Washington and the White House.”
Even Trippi, after hearing Jeb speak, found himself surprisingly impressed: “You know I used to think, ‘Oh, my God, Hillary Clinton and a Bush, here we go again,’ ” he said as he left the town hall. “But I’m really starting to think that might be the best way to get an actual debate about the issues.”
For folks such as Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, the nostalgia tour was in full effect. Tall and skinny, with saucer-plate ears, Simpson sauntered through the presidential library. Each exhibit brought back a “jumble” of memories, from heading out one night to throw snowballs off the roof of the White House to asking Mikhail Gorbachev if he knew how to say “bull---t” in five languages (Gorbachev told him no, he knew it in 10).
But more than just the frat-boy escapades of days past, Simpson said he longs for the civility he remembers. A time when he could get work done with members of both parties, instead of just drafting a bipartisan debt-reduction deal roundly ignored by both sides of the aisle (see: Simpson-Bowles).
He certainly was not the only guy who felt this way in this little Bush utopia.
Between sessions on such accomplishments as helping to end the Cold War, making budget deals, passing the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act, attendees used the opportunity to talk about how much worse off it all is these days.
“This was how it used to work, and we should return to that system,” said Olympia Snowe, the former Republican senator from Maine who opted not to seek reelection in 2012 when she just couldn’t take the polarization a second longer.
“You know, no one said there can’t be partisan bickering,” her husband, former congressman and governor John McKernan, chimed in. “There was plenty of that back then; the difference though was that it resulted in something.”
Not everyone there, however, was buying it. “I think everyone is always using nostalgia and thinking about the good old days, but when they were in it they were probably complaining and saying how much better it was back in the ’70s,” said Ben Quayle, Dan’s son and a former congressman.
Still, Saturday night guests took their seats under a giant tent to take in the sounds of platinum country star Clay Walker with nothing but happy thoughts. Streamers exploded out of the ceiling, covering excited but confused senior citizens. Forty-one sat in his wheelchair beside Gates in his neck brace, both of them with smiles plastered on their faces. Barbara sat at a table behind them, huddled close to Jeb and across from Simpson and Garth Brooks. Two of 41’s sons — George W. and Marvin — were unable to attend because of previous commitments, and Brooks was unable to headline due to some kind of exclusivity deal, but there was nothing keeping the country superstar from jumping on stage to perform his hit “Friends in Low Places.”
“I’m sitting there, the former director of the CIA, next to another former director of the CIA, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ve got friends in low places,’ ” Gates said. “A lot of whom are dead or in jail.”
“Or in office,” Brooks said later when told of the line. “Which is pretty much the same thing.”
Jeb wasn’t around to hear either comment. He was outside the tent telling a group of people how great it was that one of Clay Walker’s songs was in Spanish.