‘I discovered that politics has become a personality show’

Interview Jeb Bush He was seen as one of the most high-profile contenders in the Republican presidential primaries. But when Donald Trump crushed his ambitions, he left the race. Jeb Bush, in Amsterdam on 21 May, breaks his silence today. A conversation about insults, the power of the media, and the end of the political party.

Foto Cheryl Senter / NY Times / HH

This is the English version of an interview that was published by the Dutch newspaper NRC last Saturday.

There must have been a moment when Governor Jeb Bush realised he would never become president of the United States. When was that moment exactly? Was it after a defeat in a primary? A television debate? After another insult from Donald Trump. Bush: „I’m not into the therapeutic side of all this.’

During the conversation, he gives clues about what might have gone wrong. He tells a story, for instance, about the early stages of his campaign. It was one of his first campaign events, in Nevada. A town hall, in a retirement village, about five hunderd senior citizens showed up. The mood was joyous. „I had prepared a ten minute speech. It was hard to get to the end, so many people wanted to ask a question.”

The first person who was allowed to ask a question was an elderly woman, who had her hand raisedfor a long time. „‘What’s your position on TTIP?’ she asked. A question about an upcoming trade agreement between the US and the EU, wow, that was unexpected. Why this interest in free trade, interesting. So I gave her a straight answer: I can’t tell you where I stand. My inclination is to support these agreements, but I don’t know. TTIP has not been negotiated.’”

Bush acts out the scene that followed.

„’Yes, it has,’ the woman replied. ‘TTIP has been negotiated.’ There was applause in the room.

„I said: ‘Uuuh, no. Not yet.’

„She: ‘Yes, it has. And we are giving up our sovereignty.’ And applause again. My very first question.”

The exchange with the voter left Jeb Bush puzzled. Only later, after having experienced similar conversations, did he understad the significance. It was, in retrospect, his first altercation with an electorate that has changed dramatically since 2002, the year of his previous political campaign.

„Today, voters don’t accept any authority. Not from politics, not from media. Campaigning in 2016, talking to voters, is completely different than it was before. You have to play three-dimensional chess. You have to sort out what they think is reality, and what their views are, based on that reality. They are getting their information from different sources. A conversation about different viewpoints is hard, if you don’t even agree on the facts.”

On February 20th, John Ellis Bush - ‘Jeb’ – suspended his campaign. He was seen by many as a favourite for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush (1953) had just come a disappointing fourth place in South Carolina, despite the help of his mother Barbara and brother George. George W. Bush, president from 2001 to 2009, is still relatively popular in South Carolina, a state where many veterans live. Nothing helped. Bush gave an emotional farewell address, flew back to his home town of Miami, and was not been heard from since. He declined to give interviews, started to play golf again, and restarted his business career.

„I’m good, staying pretty close to home,” Bush tells me. I’m starting to get back in my pre-candidate life. I’m raveling my business back up, with the help of my son. It was unraveled when my campaign started.”

Are you a different person than you were before?

„You know what: I’m not into navel meditation. I tried. When you don’t accomplish your objectives, you move on. That’s what I’m doing.” A dismissive gesture. Next subject.

Jeb Bush has a tiny office on the third floor of a beautiful hotel in Coral Gables, the luxurious city close to downtown Miami. In his room: framed pictures, mostly family scenes. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall. Next to it, a Bible verse reveals something about his current mood. „Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

This afternoon, Jeb Bush breaks his silence. Next Saturday, he will give a keynote speech in Amsterdam, at a conference about Democracy in America, organised by the Nexus Institute. This will be his first public appearance after suspending his campaign.

Jeb Bush leans back. He is tall, 6’3”, and still as slim as he was on the campaign trail. He talks for nearly an hour, showing the temperament that was his trade mark during the campaign. Sometimes he speaks freely, and can laugh about his sudden thoughts. Then, almost immediately, he will show his more cautious style and looks up a little suspiciously, maybe aware once again of the uneasy role of a public figure.

Jeb is the Bush with the angst gene, The Washington Post wrote in 2003. ‘He is a shy public man who seems destined to suffer in the open.’ This tension between a public and a protected private life has always been a part of his persona. He was the crown prince, predicted by many to be the third Bush in the White House. The son of a president, the brother of a president, governor of an important swing state, Florida.

Jeb Bush never enjoyed the attention being governor brought him. His term ended in 2007, making way for a more quiet life. Yet in June last year he announced his candidacy for the presidency. He did not want to be the next Bush in line, he told his audience. „Not one of us deserves the job by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn.”

Many Republican voters saw him as a member of a party aristocracy. He campaigned as Jeb! – with the exclamation mark, without the last name. He dominated the news cycle, for one day.

One day later, businessman Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy in New York City.

For Mr. Trump, Jeb Bush was an ideal counterpart of sorts. A civilised member of the party elite, in some ways too moderate and nice. ”Low energy” was the nickname Trump made up. While Mr. Trump started his rise, the chances of governor Bush decreased. His performances became clumsier, Trump’s curse became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How do you, looking back, explain the rise of Trump?

„Well, the lives of ordinary people are disrupted by globalisation and rapid advancement of technology. They have huge potential for good, but there are a lot of losers in this process. The Obama years led to economic insecurity and divisiveness. Our government work is still mired in the 20th century. This has been fertile ground for Trump’s creation.”

When you ran your previous campaign, in 2002, there were no social media around. Were you prepared for a different election, a different electorate?

„That’s about the tactics of politics, I’m not interested in that. Trump played by a different set of rules than anyone else. He was allowed to, the press basically became his partner. He was given free access to the media. It was estimated by The New York Times he got two billion dollars in free media. We raised a lot of money. But it pales in comparison to what he got in free publicity. The media had an interest [by the media] in perpetuating this [race]. The first tv debate was watched by 25 million people, 25 million! A campaign never rolls out exactly the way you predict it, this I had never seen.”

You are saying the media gave him a wild card, but what about your own party?

„First of all, there were seventeen candidates running. For the longest period of time, he only needed high twenties to win. There wasn’t a unity around someone other than Trump. Kudos to him for exploiting the environment we are in, but we are electing a president.”

Why has there never been an exchange of ideas, a debate…

He interrupts: „The debates? They were never serious. When you are asked about Fantasy Football. Or a question like: ‘Here a video where someone says your mother is wearing army boots, what’s your reaction?’ The debates were a form of entertainment.”

I actually meant the broader debate in the party, about the direction for the next coming years. Why has that never started?

„We are living in the Twitter World, of 140 characters. Or Snapchat, where you get nine seconds to say what you want. I used to make those Snapchat clips, I know how it works. I knew how to explain a position paper of twenty pages long. I was asked, for instance: ´What´s your view on tax reform?’ I could say: ‘No exemptions. Lower taxes. Let Freedom Ring.’ Haha! And then send them to my website, the few nerds, to actually read all my positions.”

Jeb Bush leans towards his desk, behind him. He picks up a glossy. It’s Jeb’s Plan For America, his governing agenda. „We laid out more detailed plans than any other candidate running, I think in the last thirty years. This is how I wanted to run a campaign.” He shows his positions, about defeating ISIS, lowering taxes, reforming Washington. „But it didn’t work, there was relevance to that.”

Did that surprise you?

He thinks. „You know, I didn’t really…” Silence. „Look. This is me. I didn’t want to change myself. I said before I ran: I only want to run a campaign with the integrity that I might be president. As a president, you can’t allow empty chatter. That’s one of the reasons people don’t trust politicians. Politicians say things they will do, and don’t do it. That’s not how I wanted to run a campaign. It’s not who I am, it’s not what I believe, or how I was governor.”

Was that a tactical mistake?

„No. Imagine how bad a candidate I would have been if I was trying to be someone I was not.”

The moment of his candidacy seemed well-timed for Jeb Bush. After Mitt Romney’s loss, in 2012, the Republican Party carried out an ‘autopsy’ of its own failings. The party concluded it failed in reaching out to big parts of the electorate. Latino voters and African Americans were underrepresented. Middle-aged white men, the traditional electorate, were not enough for electoral success in the new, more diverse America. Bush, a proponent of party renewal, has a wife of Mexican origin and speaks Spanish fluently. He is for immigration reform, and called it unrealistic to send away millions of undocumented people. Bush:

„It’s not about outreach. It’s about making your case to everybody, without turning people off. When my dad won in 1988, he got 60 percent of the white vote. He won by 8, 9 points, it was a landslide. Fast forward to 2012, Mitt Romney got 60 percent of the white vote, and lost by 4 points. You go from 88 percent of the voters who are white, to 72 percent in 2012. We are losing that growing group of non-white voters by big pluralities.”

Yet, the autopsy conclusions seem outdated. The presumptive winner of the Republican primaries, Donald Trump, has a favorability rating of around 12 percent among Hispanics. Trump called Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists, and made plans for a wall at the Mexican border (Mexico has to pay) a cornerstone of his appeal.

On the 5th of May, Trump tweeted a picture of himself, one thumb up, behind a Taco Bowl. It was Cinco de Mayo, an important day for Mexicans. Trump tweeted: ‘I love the Hispanics!’

Jeb Bush: ”What Trump did, was so insensitive. First: not all Hispanics are Mexican. Secondly: not all Hispanics eat taco’s. Thirdly: showing your sensitivity by eating an American dish is the most insensitive thing you can do. Fourthly: to say this, next to all things he already said, is a further insult. It’s like eating a watermelon and saying: ‘I love African Americans’.”

He shakes his head. „This guy… If we lose in November, we Republicans have ourselves to blame.”

With this at stake, how is it possible that none of the other candidates really went after Trump?

„I said what I thought from the beginning. Nobody joined me, that surprised me. Lindsey Graham tried, Rick Perry a little, but only after Trump went after them. Trump only went after me, he had a bigger microphone, and got all the free advertising he wanted. Nobody stepped up, but they should have. If you believe, like me, that the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of my dad, is worth fighting for.”

They were maybe happy to let you do that job?

„There was a feeling of: let him take the grief. I got hammered by Trump. Calling John McCain a loser, making fun of the disabled, the outrageous things he said about Hispanics, women. That’s not the conservatism I believe in. Trump has millions of Twitter followers. He can say what he wants, and everybody will listen. The media gave him a free pass. He could insult anyone, and then get praised for being a phenomenal politician, because it only improved his standing. Nobody paused and asked: is it approproate what he is saying?”

But a lot of criticism for Trump was about style, tone or decency. Not so much his ideas.

„Is it appropriate to trample the Constitution? Should we really torture family members of enemy combatants? Should the Geneva Convention be re-evaluated? Is NATO no longer relevant? These are provocative ideas. But those are also dangerous thoughts. Worthy of review. That never happened. The moment Trump got boxed in, he could easily say: well, I never said that. And then there was a new story.”

Media criticism is a common theme when talking to Jeb Bush. Just like it was for his father and brother. Bush: „If you would ask the other sixteen candidates about the coverage we got, Marco [Rubio], Ted Cruz, all of them, they would say: the only coverage we got, was commenting on what Trump said. Remarkable. You are out there, you work hard. But the only chance to be on Megyn Kelly was to talk about something Trump had said.”

Jeb Bush recalls being interviewd by CNN’s Dana Bash. Trump had used ”a very profane name” when talking about him, and he was supposed to react. He pretended he had not heard about it. Bush: „I asked the reporter what did he call me? And she said: I can’t say it. It’s too profane. We went back and forth, and I just wanted to make a point about the media. Then I laughed and walked away. This election is a commercial enterprise, more than ever in history. My favorite quote is from the CEO of CBS. ‘Trump may not be good for America. But it’s damn good for CBS.’ Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.”

During your campaign, you seemed to fight constantly against perceptions. Your image. Your last name. Your conservative credentials.

„Well, if you look at the facts, I was the most conservative candidate running. My tone was different. I believe in freedom, in liberty, in protecting the most vulnerable of society. I just don’t believe in creating a welfare state. I did the best I could, but you can’t control if people pay attention. I wanted to show my experience, but that turned people off. I was part of the establishment.”

And you are part of the Bush family. Did your last name bother …

He interrupts. „Did my last name bother me? No!”

You carried a family, and a history with you along the way.

„Yes, it allowed other people to typecast me. That was the context I had to deal with.”

How do you see the future of your party?

„In order to be relevant again, meaningful ideas have to come up in an open debate. The Republican party at its best was the center of an energetic conversation in the conservative movement. There were many differences. But at the end we agreed on the big things. The candidates, other than dividing the party, focused their energy on persuading larger groups of people who are not conservative. We are no longer the conservative party focused on principles, or advocating reform. It’s a dangerous time.”

Are political parties still the right institution to catalyze that debate?

„Uncertain. Parties no longer stand for anything, but become a vehicle for ther ambitions of their leaders. Politics becomes a personality show. These are times of big uncertainty, people are hurting, there are frightening statistics: 63 percent of the Americans can’t make a 500 dollar car repair out of their pocket. The population is aging. I wanted to address the fact that the social contract has not been adjusted tot he demographic reality of the 21st century, and fix what’s broken. Trump says: ‘What? There is no problem.’ I liked to read [comic book] Mad, with Alfred E. Neuman. His slogan was: ‘What – me worry?’ That’s Trump.”

So parties become irrelevant?

„Less relevant, for sure. You can see it in the growth of Independent voters. The biggest growth in registration in Florida are the non-party affiliated. That’s common accross the country.”

Jeb Bush stands up. His next visitor is waiting. He had hoped for a brokered Convention in July, to make sure the party would nominate someone other than Trump. He supported Ted Cruz. Right now, that perspective is no longer realistic. What will he do next? Bush: „I can’t vote for Hillary [Clinton], and I can’t vote for Trump. If I would vote, I’d vote for a conservative that actually can be president. Right now, there aren’t any.”