There is a certain nostalgia afoot for the quiet decency, pragmatism and consensus-building that Bush Sr. represents, suggests Jon Meachem, author of a new biography of the elder Bush, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush." The book is the No. 1 New York Times bestseller right now, and a person can’t help but wonder if Jeb might tap into some of that newfound Bush love.
Meachem, in describing Bush 41, has essentially written a daring stump speech for Jeb.
"Americans tend to prefer their presidents on horseback: heroes who dream big and sound the trumpets," Meachem writes. [Ed. note: See Trump, Donald.] "There is, however, another kind of leader – quieter and less glamorous but no less significant – whose virtues repay our attention. There is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements. “
Meachem makes a strong case that the qualities many people in 1992 found to be Bush 41's vices are now seen as virtues -- “his public reticence; his old-fashioned dignity; his tendency to find a middle course between extremes.”
All those qualities are ones that describe Jeb just as well -- and ones he might stress in comparison to the loud snark of Donald Trump and the unsteadiness and divisiveness of the opponents ahead of him in the polls.
Just as Bush Sr.’s qualities weren’t appreciated then, but are now, Jeb might argue that the qualities that dominate in the wackadoodle, sideshow-ish early stages of this presidential campaign aren’t the qualities we might actually treasure later -- say, in a sitting president.
What if Jeb just embraced his own caricature: Reticence is good. Boring is steady. Why couldn’t Jeb make the point that, given the volatile international and the political climate in the country right now, the last thing you want is a hothead exciting mobs with loose promises, a quick trigger and fiery putdowns? That it’s time now to enter the serious, adult season of the campaign?
Bush Sr. was more traditionally conservative than many of his contemporaries understood, in the sense that he sought “above all to conserve what was good about the world as they found it, “ Meachem argues.
He once told hardcore believers during an interview that he was worried their idealism (by which he meant ideology but was too nice to call it that) might get in the way of sound government. For him, “conservatism entailed prudence and pragmatism.” He “eschewed the sudden and the visionary,” Meachem said at a talk recently.
By that definition, Jeb is the truest conservative in the present lineup -- not by virtue of his ideology, but rather his moderate temperament.
Sub in Jeb for George Sr. in these paragraphs from Meachem’s book, and he sounds like the man for the hour.
“Americans unhappy with the reflexively polarized politics of the first decades of the twenty-first century will find the presidency of George H. W. Bush of Jeb Bush refreshing, even quaint. He I will embraced compromise as a necessary element of public life, engage
d his my political foes in the passage of important legislation, and was be willing to break with the base of his my own party in order to do what he thought was I think is right, whatever the price.
“Bush was I will be a steward, not a seer, and made make no apologies for his my preference for pragmatism over ideology. Unflinching creed and consuming world views could lead to catastrophe, for devotees of doctrine tended to fall in love with their own righteousness, ignoring inconvenient facts.” [Ed. note: See Islamic State.]
Jeb might mention that George H.W. Bush first won office in Texas as the candidate of those who thought the Republican Party was getting too extreme.
He also might mention that his dad built an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, just the sort of pragmatic coalition-building the world needs to sustain now to beat back Islamic State. The way he succeeded was by not poking anyone of his partners in the eye.
Just as Trump is running on a platform of popularity – that his best qualification for president is the fact that he’s leading the polls -- perhaps Bush should trumpet his unpopularity in this circus of a campaign as his greatest virtue -- that voters ought to base their decision on character and qualifications, not who’s best at winning 15 minutes of fame.
Jeb could say that the times demand such a grown-up again. That wonky seriousness is a virtue, not a shortfall. That his inability to incite (or excite) masses is exactly the kind of middle-of-the road, dispassionate, level-headed leadership the times now demand. Make a choice based on resume, not rhetoric.
After many in-depth, even tearful interviews with Bush family members and a long peek at Barbara and George’s diaries, Meacham might understand the durability of the Bush brand in public life better than anyone. Maybe Jeb should hire him as a speechwriter, so that he might articulate for Jeb -- just as he has for Bush 41 -- the quiet qualities that America might need right now, even if they don’t necessarily want them.