George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush after a christening ceremony for the Navy’s new aircraft carrier the George H.W. Bush, in October 2007. (EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH)

When Jeb Bush deflects comparisons to his father and brother by saying “I am my own man,” he is continuing a conversation the Bush family has been having for a long time. In 1998, when George W. Bush was running for reelection for the Texas governorship and Jeb Bush was seeking a first term as governor of Florida, their father sent them both a letter of advice on how to deal with the contrasts between father and sons that were appearing in the press.

In his letter, the former president is acutely aware of the criticisms against him — on everything from his “vision” to his economic policies to his syntax — and is disdainful of the “Washington Establishment” and the journalists seeking a “hook” for their stories. The elder Bush defends his record, yet urges his sons to “chart your own course” — even if it means distancing themselves from their father’s policies. The letter, dated Aug. 1, 1998, is reproduced below, as featured in “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings,” published in 1999:

Dear George and Jeb:

. . . Your Mother tells me that both of you have mentioned to her your concerns about some of the political stories — the ones that seem to put me down and make me seem irrelevant — that contrast you favorably to a father who had no vision and who was but a place holder in the broader scheme of things.

I have been reluctant to pass along advice. Both of you are charting your own course, spelling out what direction you want to take your State, in George’s case running on a record of accomplishment.

But the advice is this. Do not worry when you see the stories that compare you favorably to a Dad for whom English was a second language and for whom the word destiny meant nothing.

First, I am content with how historians will judge my administration — even on the economy. I hope and think they will say we helped change the world in a positive sense. . .

It is inevitable that the new breed [of] journalists will have to find a hook in stories, will have to write not only on your plans and your dreams but will have to compare those with what, in their view, I failed to accomplish.

That can be hurtful to a family that loves each other. That can hurt you boys who have been wonderful to me, you two of whom I am so very proud. But the advice is don’t worry about it. At some point both of you may want to say “Well, I don’t agree with my Dad on that point” or “Frankly I think Dad was wrong on that.” Do it. Chart your own course, not just on the issues but on defining yourselves. No one will ever question your love of family — your devotion to your parents. We have all lived long enough and lived in a way that demonstrates our closeness; so do not worry when the comparisons might be hurtful to your Dad for nothing can ever be written that will drive a wedge between us — nothing at all. . .

And it’s not just the journalists. There is the Washington Establishment. The far right will continue to accuse me of “Betraying the Reagan Revolution” — something Ronald Reagan would never do. Then they feed the press giving them the anti Bush quote of the day. I saw one the other day “No new Bushes” an obvious reference to no new taxes. . .

Nothing that crowd can ever say or those journalists can ever write  will diminish my pride in you both, so worry not. The comparisons are inevitable and they will inevitably be hurtful to all of us, but not hurtful enough to divide, not hurtful enough to really mean anything. So when the next one surfaces, just say “Dad understands. He is at my side. He understands that I would never say anything much less do anything to hurt any member of our family.”

So read my lips — no more worrying. Go out there and, as they say in the oil fields, “Show ’em a clean one.”

This from your very proud and devoted,

Dad

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