The Family Business

Jeb Bush probably wishes his father and brother weren’t discussing their presidencies while he is struggling to reach the same heights. 

Former President George H. W. Bush poses with his sons former Pr
Former President George H.W. Bush stands with his sons former President George W. Bush and Jeb Bush after completing a parachute jump in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 2009.

Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

It’s the old family story: A vice president turned president criticizes his former secretary of defense who served as vice president to his son, another president, causing his son, the president, to distance himself from his president father, and also causing his other son, who is not yet president but would like to be, to distance himself, too. 

When Jeb Bush announced that he was running for president, he said he was “a guy who met his first president on the day he was born, and his second on the day he was brought home from the hospital.” Father and son relationships are tricky when everyone is in the same profession, but in a household that is thick with presidents, the awkward moments are inevitable. A new one has arrived with the publication of Jon Meacham’s book about George H.W. Bush in which the former president weighs in on his son George W. Bush’s presidency. 

In the book, Destiny and Power: The America Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st  president says that “iron-ass” Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld didn’t serve his son, the 43rd  president, well. Cheney, who was secretary of defense under the elder Bush, “set up his own State Department,” according to the 41st president, and Rumsfeld was “arrogant,” never taking into account the views of those who disagreed with him.

This is probably not what Jeb Bush wants anyone to be talking about right now as his campaign struggles: the mistakes associated with the Iraq invasion and the fascinating complexities of his family tree. That dynamic includes the fact that Rumsfeld had once wanted to be president and helped encourage Richard Nixon to send George H.W. Bush to China to remove a possible rival from the scene. 

Not long after the book’s revelations were made public, both President George W. Bush and Jeb Bush praised Cheney. “As it relates to Dick Cheney, he served my—my brother well as vice president, and he served my dad extraordinarily well as secretary of defense,” said Jeb, who then went on to reflect on his father’s possible motives. “I think my dad, like a lotta people that love George, wanna try to create—a different narrative perhaps just to—just ’cause that’s natural to do, right?”

You don’t want to overdo the textual analysis of a son trying to cover for his father, but what Jeb seems to be saying is that people who love W. want to find some way to excuse the mistakes of his administration by blaming them on Cheney and Rumsfeld, which could mean two different things. Either people love W. so much they seek to excuse him even from the small mistakes of his administration by picking on Cheney. Or, the mistakes were so large that they pick on Cheney because they can’t imagine beloved W. could have been responsible for them. In any event, there seems to be something about George W. Bush that has people who love him looking for a narrative. 

The father is getting a new narrative in the Meacham book, and it will be fascinating to engage in the conversation it starts during this campaign year. The question the book raises is whether everything about George H.W. Bush is outdated or whether he is a model the party and its president should return to—a noble kind of restraint in foreign policy based on diplomacy and a prudence in domestic affairs. 

Jeb Bush argues that the world has changed a lot since Cheney was secretary of defense. “The context changes—we’ve gotta get beyond, I think, this feeling that, you know, somehow the 1991 is—is the same as 2001, which is the same as 2017. It isn’t. The world has changed. It always changes.” (An aside: This is the argument for Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign, by the way. He makes the case he’s got a special insight into today’s world that makes Jeb’s experience from a decade ago obsolete.)

So is everything about George H.W. Bush’s presidency outdated? At the moment, the GOP nominating conversation is dominated by efforts to show strength on every foreign front. Though as a candidate H.W. probably would be slinging the same hot rhetoric—he was a tough competitor—as a president he was far more diplomatic. (One of his critiques of his son in the book is over W.’s undiplomatic language.) On domestic issues, he was from a different era. His decision to accept a tax increase to make a budget deal with Democrats doesn’t seem likely in today’s GOP, where agreeing to tax increases is considered an unforgivable breach of faith. Jeb Bush once said that decision was the most courageous one taken by a president in the modern era. Once the book is published, he’ll have a chance to explain if that context has changed, too.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.