When Jeb Bush suspended his bid for the GOP nomination, it brought to a close a chapter in American politics that has lasted nearly four decades. A period when the Bush family played a major role influencing the course of the country.
The combined Bush family political stats just going back to 1980 are beyond impressive.
One vice president.
Seven national campaigns.
And there were lots of victories, but unfortunately for Jeb Bush, the most recent one won’t be going in the win column. It wrapped up among loyal, but sad supporters in a hotel ballroom in Columbia, S.C.
As Jeb Bush began his primary night remarks on Saturday, it soon became clear he was bearing bad news. He would finish fourth place at best-in-the-state GOP contest. Not good enough to justify continuing.
“The people of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken,” he said. Then, occasionally choking back tears, he added, “So tonight I am suspending my campaign.”
But let’s start this journey almost exactly 36 years earlier. It was January of 1980, and the Iowa caucuses were fast approaching.
Among the six candidates on stage were Sens. Howard Baker and Robert Dole, and former ambassador to China and the United Nations, former CIA chief, former congressman and former Republican Party Chairman George H.W. Bush. Skipping the debate was Ronald Reagan.
It was Bush’s first presidential run and he declared, “I want to be a part of the answer, not a part of the problem and that’s why I need your help as we go into these Iowa caucuses on January 21st.”
He was well received in the auditorium that night, and on caucus day. George Bush would score a surprise victory, narrowly beating out Reagan. That strong showing was a big reason he became Reagan’s running mate.
Eight years later, it was Bush’s turn. He won the nomination and beat Democrat Michael Dukakis to win the White House.
During the 1988 Republican Convention, Bush spoke modestly of his military service as a Navy pilot in World War II.
“I say it without boast or bravado. I fought for my country. I’ve served.”
But his most famous line of that speech was this pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
The applause was deafening, but it was a promise Bush would break as president.
The reversal played a role in his defeat in his bid for re-election four years later.
One of the triumphs of his presidency was his response to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
President Bush pulled together a coalition of nations to respond.
He delivered a nationally-televised address, announcing, “Air attacks are underway against military targets in Iraq. We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear bomb potential. We will also destroy his chemical weapons facilities.”
Opeation Desert Storm was a success. Saddam Hussein was defeated. But he remained in power, setting the stage for another war in Iraq a decade later.
In 1997, at the dedication of his presidential library at Texas A&M University, the ceremony was opened by the state’s governor, George W. Bush.
He praised his father: “President Bush was a man who entered the political arena and left with his integrity intact.”
When George W. Bush ran for president himself, some saw it as a way to avenge his father’s defeat.
The 2000 election ended in chaos. Lawyers battled over the recount in Florida, where Jeb Bush was governor. It took five weeks and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to declare a winner — George W. Bush was president-elect. Al Gore conceded defeat.
Bush spoke from the Texas state Capitol, saying, “Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements.”
But it was a nation bitterly divided into red and blue camps. Eventually Americans did rally behind the president, when terrorists struck on Sept. 11.
President Bush addressed the nation: “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat, but they have failed. Our country is strong.”
War in Afghanistan followed. But President Bush then went too far for many Americans when he invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
The president delivered a speech in Cincinnati, warning, “We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
The stated goal was to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but none was ever found.
As the war dragged on, public support plummeted. It also sent Bush’s approval rating downward, as did the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At one point his approval rating fell to 25 percent, according to Gallup, and voters drove Republicans from control in Washington.
In an interview with Morning Edition in November 2014, the former president discussed the prospect of a third Bush presidency, as his brother Jeb mulled a run. He was asked about those who said the country didn’t need another Bush in the White House.
He was candid. “In many ways the name is a plus and some ways the name is a burden, and you just described one of the burdens.”
But then he added, “The environment is what it is. You don’t get to rewrite the environment. And so Jeb has to think about whether or not he wants to be president.”
Which brings us to 2016.
When he launched his campaign, Jeb Bush would often be asked about his brother and his father. He declared that he was running as his own man, but kept tripping on the family legacy. Especially Iraq. Bush had a hard time articulating what he would have done, and he wouldn’t criticize his brother.
George W. made a very rare campaign appearance with him at a rally in North Charleston last week. His 90-year-old mother, Barbara, also hit the trail with Jeb. They both remain popular with South Carolina voters and were very enthusiastically received, but to no avail.
The biggest problem was that Jeb Bush seemed to be running the kind of race that might have worked in his father’s or his brother’s time — but not now. The Republican Party has changed dramatically — moving to the right and rejecting the establishment. The ground was shifting right under Bush’s feet.
Over the weekend, you could hear Jeb Bush finally coming to terms with that as he wrapped up the final speech of a disappointing journey.
“Thank you for the opportunity to run for the greatest office on the face of the earth. I love you all, God bless you.”