Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray

A clan of ferocious
competitors returns to the fray

Jeb Bush and his family love a contest -- and they should never be underestimated when they enter one

Published on June 16, 2015


Jeb Bush’s DNA string might as well be tied around his neck. It’s a twisting, double-edged thing, this family inheritance, at once his greatest advantage and disadvantage.

Above: Jeb Bush with his father circa 1968, when George H.W. Bush was a congressman representing Texas. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

Above: Jeb Bush with his father circa 1968, when George H.W. Bush was a congressman representing Texas. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

On the one hand, it makes him an immediate force in the crowded GOP presidential field. On the other hand, it saddles him with a problem of self-definition; people think they already know him, which means they see him as more of the same of something they already got. Twice.

Bush’s choice to enter the race, rather than slip humbly into the second row of history, might be effrontery if it weren’t such an intriguing expression of self-confidence. What makes him believe a third Bush is even remotely electable?

The answer lies in a quality essential to his family identity. Bushes love a contest — and, as they’ve demonstrated again and again, they should never be underestimated when they enter one. “My intention is to run on my record, my ideas, and to run to win the presidency,” Bush said at a Florida economic summit in June, “not just to make a point or to have my voice heard.”

Jeb’s brother George W., whose White House tenure from 2001 to 2009 included two wars and a recession, has said that a main obstacle to Jeb attaining the White House might be “me.”

Even his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, has expressed reservations about a Bush 2016 campaign, because along with his name he inherits a half-century of political enemies.

“You get our good and our bad,” she says. But then, she also told George W. not to run. “Twice,” she says.

More than 200 years ago, Abigail Adams suggested to her son John Quincy Adams that it was his duty to multiply the achievements of his father, John Adams. “An account will be required of you hereafter,” she wrote. “Being possessed of one, two, or four, see to it that you double your numbers.” To some, Jeb Bush seems to be seeking to triple his.

“I’m not running for president trying to break the tie between the Adams family and the Bush family,” Jeb told a New Hampshire audience. “It really isn’t my motivation. But I have to prove that.”

Dynasty. “That’s a TV show,” his mother says, with a certain snap in her voice.

Legacy. The famously self-effacing 41st president of the United States finds the term so immodest he declines to say it aloud. “The L-word,” George H.W. Bush says, grimacing. “We don’t like it. No, we don’t.”

[section headline="" description="" caption="Jeb Bush talks to the media in March after a meet-and-greet event at a home of a backer in Dover, N.H. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)" credit="" src="" link="" align="full" ]

The former president and first lady follow events from their butter-colored living room in Houston, where a sideboard is packed with family photos in silver frames. He is 91 and can no longer walk, and he was hospitalized last winter with a respiratory illness that left him audibly short of breath. She just turned 90, but she retains the strong voice, sweep of white hair, and warm gusting emotional honesty that made her one of the most popular modern first ladies.

So many campaigns and terms in office have created hard-shellacked misperceptions about their family, they say. Myth No. 1, according to the patriarch and matriarch, is that the family has followed some kind of Machiavellian political blueprint.

“I don’t think there’s been a long-term game plan for how to be a Bush, or how to run for office, or do something like that,” the former president says.

Bush at the March event in Dover. For this series, Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

But the notion trails Jeb like a tin can tied to a car, creating noise that the family finds irritating and sometimes painful. Pundits blithely discuss whether the family name is a “liability.”

“Maybe it is a liability,” Barbara Bush says. “Who knows? Mother with a big mouth. Maybe it is.”

“You get some of that, but the other side of it is, some are rather favorable about it,” George H.W. Bush says. “About the fact that —”

“About you,” she interrupts. “Although they love to knock your number-one son.”

This is the palpable tension in Jeb Bush’s campaign: between family loyalty and political necessity. How does the 62-year-old former governor of Florida set himself apart as a candidate without creating too much distance from his father and brother?

“Everybody knows who I am,” he told supporters in Myrtle Beach, S.C., earlier this year. “They know I’m George’s boy, and I’m Barbara’s boy, and I’m proud of it. They know I’m George W.’s brother.”

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the Bushes as a group are deeply averse to self-examination, especially Jeb. “He falls firmly into the very heavily populated anti-navel-gazing portion of our family,” writes his youngest brother, Marvin, who responded to questions only via e-mail.

Yet invariably, at each stop Jeb is asked to navel-gaze and to answer for his relations: How does he differentiate himself from his father and brother, their policies and records? To what calculable extent is he or isn’t he one of them?

[section headline="" description="" caption="George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Jeb Bush play golf in July 2001 at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, just a few months into George W.'s presidency. (Reuters)" credit="" src="" link="" align="full" ]

Though they are fifth-generation Yalies with a summer estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, the Bushes believe in themselves as self-starters — as much as sons of industrialists, senators and presidents can.

Jeb, who declined to be interviewed for this article, points out in interviews that he started on the bottom rung in banking and then Florida real estate. “I’ve worked every day of my life,” he says.

At every step, of course, he had the contacts and capital of family friends and relatives, which journalist Jacob Weisberg has called “his family’s precept of making it on your own (with help).”

Still, Jeb uses the phrase “earned success” without embarrassment, and he told New York magazine in 2012, “It’s quintessentially Bush to establish your own identity.”

His own identity is this: He is the thoughtful Bush, “certainly the most introspective and independent member of our family,” Marvin says.

He’s an overt intellectual in a clan of self-trimmers who make fun of academic pretensions. An accent from nowhere and steel-rimmed glasses give him the aspect of a technocrat, and he is far more interested in policy than either his father or brother.

Nevertheless, Jeb is a Bush. And if Bushes are anything, they are a family of super-competitors. Ferociously so, across the board.

“At everything from tiddlywinks to backgammon,” says former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, a Bush family friend. They take their contests so seriously they give no quarter even to the youngest members of the family. Which George H.W. learned the hard way when he was just a small boy and his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, beat him mercilessly at tennis, “right-handed and left-handed,” Barbara says.

Jeb competed with an intensity almost jarring to weekend warriors in Houston and Kennebunkport, where the family long dominated the local country clubs. James Bruner, son of the pastor at their Kennebunkport church, St. Ann’s, remembers marveling at a shot Jeb made on the tennis court, an overhead smash that became legendary. “It was like, ker-blam!” Bruner says. “It bounced so high it went on the roof.”

Jeb Bush takes a question from the media in Salem, N.H., after speaking to the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce in May. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The Bushes loved consorting with famous athletes, eager to see how their amateur talents stacked up against the real thing. During George H.W.’s term in office, he baited tennis legends Chris Evert and Pam Shriver into a match against Jeb and Marvin at the White House — and invited 250 or so dignitaries to watch. When it rained, the president moved the match to an indoor court at the Hart Senate Office Building.

“He brought the whole Senate with him,” Evert says. All business at the White House paused. Buses were organized to take VIP spectators, including astronauts, to the match.

“We foolishly took the challenge lightly,” Evert says.

The Bush boys turned out to have wicked country club backhands and booming serves “like they were on the ATP tour,” Evert says.

The Bushes won in the third set. On the last point, the president grinned so broadly “you would have thought we won Wimbledon,” Marvin recalls.

Sitting in his living room in Houston decades later, the former president beams again just thinking about it and quotes Evert’s reaction as the match ended:

“Nobody told me these Bushes play tennis.”

When Shriver suggested that next time they meet on a slower surface like clay, Jeb shot back, “There won’t be a next time.”

Bush family photos: The Bush family on the campaign trail in 1966 -- from left, Doro, George H.W., Jeb, Marvin, George W., Neil and Barbara.
Barbara with George W. and Jeb in Midland, Tex. in 1956.
Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba, with Barbara, George H.W. and Doro in Kennebunkport, Maine, circa 1973 or 1974. (Photos from the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

The Bush ethos is so strong that Jeb imbibed it despite a scattered adolescence, as his father held a succession of public offices and his mother moved the family furniture more than 20 times.

He spent his childhood in a boomtown Houston subdivision with a sprawling back yard, where his father hung tire swings from trees and created a makeshift baseball diamond with a chicken-wire backstop. The kids would try to hit home runs into the yard of the neighbors, the Vanderhofs, whose two daughters had a tendency to peek over the fence. The Bush boys would skinny dip at night, and when George H.W. wanted them out of the pool and in bed he would yell, “Here come the Vanderhof girls!”

Jeb’s childhood friends recall a somewhat solemn boy, perpetually big for his age and responsible-seeming even then. “He was always the most mature of the bunch,” neighbor David Bates says.

Jeb developed a huge lefty cut at the plate, and one day he hit a home run so towering that it broke one of the Vanderhofs’ second-story windows. It angered his mother but thrilled his father. “What a great hit,” the senior Bush enthused.

George W., nearly seven years older than Jeb, had a natural leg up in competitions to be dubbed “the family champ,” as their father put it. The distance between them grew in 1961 when George went off to Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, followed by Yale.

The elder Bushes say accounts of rivalry between their first two sons are overstated, as is the idea that they favored Jeb and thought he had the brighter political future. “That’s the dumbest thing,” Barbara says. But friends acknowledge that with competition so essential to the family dynamic, a sense of challenge was inevitable.

“I would say there is a fair amount of competitiveness between the two,” says Jim Towey, who was George W.’s head of faith-based initiatives at the White House and is also close to Jeb. “I don’t think Jeb was going to live in his brother’s shadow. . . . I suspect he was anxious to get to the age where he would be judged on his own.”

But sibling differences melted away when they took on outsiders. Almost invariably when the neighborhood boys chose up sides for a game, Jeb, George, Neil and Marvin formed their own squad and took on any comers. “There was a lot of Bushes against the other kids,” says Rob Kerr, Jeb’s childhood best friend. “They were one team against all the others. The Bushie Bombers they might call themselves.”

The got-your-back family sensibility became more pronounced when their father began running for elected office. Jeb worked his first campaign in 1964, when he was just 11 and his father ran for Senate against Democratic incumbent Ralph Yarborough. When his father lost, after being pilloried as a carpetbagger and extremist, he wept.

In 1966, Jeb again stuffed envelopes, this time as his father won a seat in the House of Representatives. But the victory meant separation from the family. While George and Barbara Bush moved to Washington with the youngest children, 13-year-old Jeb stayed behind in Houston and lived with the Kerrs while he finished the academic year. The following fall he went off to boarding school at Andover, as his grandfather, father and brother had done. He wouldn’t live at home again.

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It was campaigns that kept the far-flung Bushes close. In 1980, when George H.W. was running for president, the family re-coalesced.

Jeb, who had married a young woman, Columba Gallo, from Mexico after getting a degree in Latin American studies from the University of Texas, employed his fluent Spanish in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and gave his first speeches. Marvin took a leave from the University of Virginia and went to Iowa. Neil went to New Hampshire. George W. went everywhere. They bonded in the trenches.

“When you move as much as we moved, you’ve got one unit to sort of count on, and it’s family,” Barbara says. “And it was sort of us against the world, I guess, when George was running for office.”

When it became clear George H.W. had lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan, Jeb was distraught. He accompanied his parents to the Republican convention in Detroit, where he hoped his father would get the vice-presidential nomination, and despaired when he heard rumors Reagan would choose Gerald Ford.

Jeb Bush, joined by son George P. and wife Columba, is sworn as the governor of Florida on Jan. 5, 1999, in Tallahassee. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

“It’s not fair,” he kept repeating, in tears.

Then the phone rang. Reagan was on the line to offer George H.W. the place on the ticket, launching the Bush family into presidential politics.

In subsequent years, the pattern would repeat itself. The family would scatter, only to reunite for electoral bids.

“Nothing can bring a family together, or maybe tear it apart, like a hard-fought political campaign,” Marvin observes. “In our case it’s brought us even closer.”

In 1984, the Republican convention was held in Dallas, and as it drew to a close, the whole Bush family descended on the home of their friend Roger Staubach, the famed Dallas Cowboys quarterback who had retired a few years earlier. Staubach had a basketball court in his back yard, and the Bush boys sauntered out to shoot some baskets. Pretty soon they collected under one of the backboards and suggested a game: the Bush boys against all comers.

Staubach decided to call a few of his friends. He picked up the phone and dialed Cliff Harris, a former Cowboys safety. Then he called some local college players he liked to play against to burn off his competitive energy.

It was a game of shirts and skins. The pro athletes removed their shirts and showed rippling muscles. It was late August in Dallas, and the mercury was spiking. George H.W. Bush took a seat on a courtside bench. “Oh it was hot,” he remembers, smiling.

The Bush brothers after playing basketball with former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, center, ex-Cowboy Cliff Harris, shirt off at right, and others in Staubach's back yard in 1984. (Family photo)

The ball went up, and the 6-foot-4 Jeb immediately tried to post up Staubach inside. George W., a seasoned runner, began sprinting and despite the heat did not cease for the next couple of hours. “Driven by false pride perhaps,” Marvin says, the Bush boys held their own with the Dallas Cowboys.

“They played rough,” Harris remembers. “And they were in really good shape, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ We had to get more serious about it. They were running and running, taking shots and bumping into us. President Bush was laughing on the bench, and there are Secret Service guys all around. They caught me completely off guard with their competitiveness and toughness. I was really surprised at their intensity.”

At one point, the Bushes were just a basket from winning. The Cowboys wouldn’t allow it; Staubach began knocking Bush boys to the ground. “On at least three or four occasions he flat knocked me on my ass,” Marvin recalls.

A social family gathering had turned into a millionaires’ version of “The Longest Yard.”

It’s the sort of story you hear over and over again about the Bush boys: People peg them as thin-blooded amateurs only to discover what a mistake it is to take them lightly. They have brought the same keen love of contest to every campaign — and the same ability to sandbag. “They are very strategic,” says Doug Wead, a former aide to the first President Bush and confidant to the second. “So much so it startled me.”

They are never more proud than when they take on all comers and win. On Election Day in 1998, when Jeb Bush won the governor’s race in Florida while George W. won a second term as governor of Texas, their father turned to his wife. He said, “This is the happiest day of my life.”

“What about the day you were married?” she said indignantly.

“Well that too,” he replied.

[section headline="" description="" caption="The Bush family poses for a photo at the family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, this month. (Evan Sisley/Office of George Bush via AP)" credit="" src="" link="" align="full" ]

Even if the Bushes love campaigns, it’s impossible for a family with such long experience to enter into another one without a wincing apprehension about the long contest ahead.

They know, firsthand, how foible hardens into flaw in the press. They’ve seen both Bush presidents lampooned as virtual illiterates based on their linguistic tics. They’ve seen the family’s decorated and revered World War II-hero father labeled a “wimp” because he resisted political polarization. They’ve endured the ratcheting of political hatred of George W. Bush over the invasion of Iraq. And they’ve witnessed the lingering effects of political fallout on Neil Bush, once a golden child, for his involvement in the 1988 collapse of the Silverado Savings and Loan.

“We’ve experienced the satisfaction and the angst that comes with public service,” Marvin says. “One day you’re a hero and the next you’re viewed in a cartoonish light. Even though I have an incredible amount of confidence in Jeb, and the job he would do as president, I had mixed personal feelings about his candidacy. Anyone who has a loved one in politics would get this.”

But no candidate has ever been in Jeb Bush’s position. He is trying to do something unprecedented in American history. He’ll face stresses his father and brother never faced.

It’s impossible for Jeb Bush to sever his first name from his last. All he can do is explain, “I’ve had a life experience uniquely mine,” and insist that it made him his own man. “He’s got his own record,” George H.W. Bush says. As for what to do about all that tension, his father smiles and says, “He will overcome.”

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.