Last night, I was online watching news clips reporting the South Carolina results, and I stopped on a report reflecting on Jeb Bush’s failed campaign. The report featured clips of Donald Trump bullying Jeb on the trail, and especially in the last debate. Jeb didn’t know how to fight back. Actually, he probably did know, but it’s not in his character to stoop to that level.
“Stop playing that,” my wife said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
I stopped, and we talked about it. We agreed that Trump was gratuitously cruel to Jeb Bush, in a way that is hard to take. Refusing to bow to Trump’s level of discourse was seen by many as Jeb’s validating Trump’s accusation that he’s “weak.”
This morning in his homily, my priest talked about the virtue of humility. It was such a contrast to everything about Donald Trump. Was Jeb Bush acting out of conscious humility when he refused to engage Trump at the gutter level? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect it’s more the case that people of his class and breeding (if we can say that still) have internalized a code of honor that considers that kind of vulgar display to be contemptible, and beneath one’s dignity to engage. How could one tell the difference between the strength of character through which a man refuses to dishonor himself, and weakness?
Jeb Bush was not my candidate. I’ve always felt that he’s an essentially good man, though I did not want him to be president this year. I am a conservative who believes the GOP needs a big shake-up, and whatever his admirable personal characteristics, Jeb represents Republican stasis. We can’t afford that, not now.
But I truly believe our public life is greatly diminished by the spectacle Donald Trump has made of himself, going out of his way to personally humiliate Jeb Bush. Hey, it worked, I guess, but it’s still an extremely dishonorable way to win. Jeb looked bad when he couldn’t answer Trump’s baiting about the Iraq War, and fell back on a feeble “you shouldn’t trash my family” defense. Then again, I remember thinking at the start of Jeb’s campaign that I did not envy what was coming for him, re: having to answer hard questions about his brother’s presidency. I don’t honestly know what Jeb Bush thinks about the Iraq War, or any other aspect of George W. Bush’s presidency. I know that Jeb likely has a sense of loyalty to his family that would cause him to be instinctively defensive of his brother — and that means not criticizing him in public.
Years ago, when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” came out, Diane Sawyer did a TV interview with Gibson, in which she asked him about his crazypants father’s anti-Semitic conspiracy views. Gibson’s voice rose, and he warned Sawyer not to go there. I happen to believe his father, who does hold those views, is a bad man for believing those malignant lies. But I deeply sympathized with Gibson in that moment, because this was his father we were talking about. In Jeb Bush’s case, he was, after all, seeking the presidency, and there’s no way he could have legitimately avoided talking about the Iraq War and other aspects of his brother’s administrations. That’s just the truth, and it would not have been fair to have given him a pass.
Still, it was painful to watch him manhandled by Trump, even though at times (such as on the Iraq War) I think Trump had reason to push hard. But there’s a big difference between pushing hard and humiliating people. Trump has no sense of personal honor. None. When Jeb Bush left the scene last night with an incredibly graceful, dignified farewell speech, it was probably the thing he said throughout this campaign that revealed the true strength of his character. I am not sorry that Jeb Bush is out of the running now, but I regret very much that what wins in American politics this year are the tactics employed by the man who conspicuously lacks what Jeb Bush plainly has: character.
UPDATE: A dissenting reader writes:
Hi Rod, I think what you’re seeing in Jeb is not good character, but rather good manners. As some one who had privileges, money, and power blown at him through a firehose from the day he was born, he could afford never to develop a killer instinct — and could afford to outsource Trump-style viciousness to social inferiors of the Turd Blossom and Atwater varieity. “Good character” would seem to have something to do with toughness and bootstapping and resilience, which Jeb doesn’t seem to have, particularly.
Anyway, Richard Ben Cramer’s great book “What It Takes,” about the ’88 campaign, is premised around the idea that, when it came down to it, the first Bush had “what it takes” to win the presidency — that is, an unscrupulous and vicious gutter killer instinct that, in the end, Dukakis and Biden and the rest did not have. The book is largely about Poppy overcoming his upper class rectitude in order to do what it takes to win. Cramer also makes very clear that Barbara Bush was a classic conniving nasty political wife with the best of them, all the Miss Porters School baggage notwithstanding.
Anyway, I’d be very surprised if you had not read Cramer’s classic, after which the idea that the Bushes are “gentlemen” of some sort is hard to accept. And that was before W.