Publisher's Note — November 10, 2015, 8:00 am

At Any Cost

“The pundits overestimate Americans’ supposedly anti-aristocratic tendencies, and underestimate Jeb’s profound determination to win.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on November 2, 2015. Translated from the French by Ryann Liebenthal.

Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign appears to be in crisis, if not total collapse. Recent polls show that the popularity of this latest Republican heir apparent—son of one president and brother of another—has hit its lowest level since he officially launched his campaign in June. The former governor of Florida, once the presumed favorite, now finds himself assailed from all sides, most of all by his eccentric rivals Donald Trump, the brash businessman, and Ben Carson, the soft-spoken neurosurgeon. 

The conventional media wisdom is that the American electorate is fed up with the political establishment, which would explain the current fascination with “outsiders” who threaten to “dismantle” the corrupt Washington cabal that Jeb and the ultraconnected Bushes embody. Everything that would normally have made his nomination inevitable—the enormous quantity of money at his disposal, the backing of party bigwigs, and the image of Protestant rectitude that accompanies an old, well-established family—has suddenly become a burden for this royal child.

But I must say, with regrets to all those who yearn for the end of the Bush dynasty, that the pundits are wrong. They overestimate Americans’ supposedly anti-aristocratic tendencies, and underestimate Jeb’s profound determination to win at any cost, no matter the consequences. The Bushes, spoiled rich kids just like the Kennedys, are in no way cowed by the prospect of a game, or a race, or a competition, whether in sports or in politics. To be number one, above everyone else, counts much more than belonging to the best clubs or being considered respectable and proper. Just like the Kennedys, they don’t hesitate to cheat, lie, and even kill in order to feed their bottomless ambition.

One example should have ruined the Bushes’ reputation for restraint, long before the vilification of George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion. In June of 1988, the family patriarch, George H. W., aspired to the White House, but Ronald Reagan’s VP found himself seventeen points behind Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, in the polls. He had to do something immediately to close the gap. The hardliners in his campaign had the perfect solution: frighten voters with the saga of Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who raped a woman and stabbed her fiancé six months after he failed to return to his Massachusetts prison following a weekend furlough authorized by Governor Dukakis’s administration. 

Giving holidays to prisoners offered great fodder for a TV attack ad—which would brand Dukakis as a spineless, soft-on-crime liberal—but the first hurdle was convincing a possibly squeamish Bush to run it. Influenced by his patrician parents and friends, the candidate would perhaps find such an onslaught against his rival to be in bad taste. Not to worry. According to the journalist Richard Ben Cramer, Bush’s advisers did not have to push for a negative campaign. Gathered together at the family stronghold in Kennebunkport, they presented their plan of attack. As Cramer wrote: “From his terrace, Bush gazed out at the rocks and sea and said, mildly: ‘Well, you guys are the experts . . . ’” Furthermore, “he didn’t need surrogates—he’d do the attack himself.”

Cramer explains that acting in this “ugly, brainless” manner was not at all upsetting to the candidate. And those who were surprised by this version of Bush, according to Cramer, were guilty of mistaking “breeding for behavior.” It’s a double standard that was bequeathed to sons George W. and Jeb: a proper image and comportment hiding nastiness and aggression against those perceived as enemies.

Moreover, Bush Sr. had demonstrated this aggression from a very early age. As a torpedo bomber pilot during the Second World War, he evidently had taken part in his squadron’s strafing of Japanese survivors whose boat had been sunk by their bombs, an event that was detailed in a Navy report (first revealed in Harper’s Magazine). Not to mention the fact that to convince members of Congress to vote for the Gulf War in 1991, he repeatedly cited the false story that Saddam’s soldiers had massacred babies in Kuwaiti hospitals by pulling them from incubators.

From father to son it’s a simple line to purging thousands of black voters from the rolls in Florida in the lead-up to the 2000 presidential election—this under the authority of Governor Jeb Bush, who sealed up George W.’s narrow margin of victory. Three years later, we were treated to George W.’s lies about Saddam’s nonexistent atomic bomb and chemical-weapons program, used to justify the second invasion of Iraq. Having been reelected in 2004 despite the revelation of this massive fraud, and amid a military catastrophe, George W. could laugh with his friends: “The American masses are just as stupid as we suspected. We truly are above it all.” 

So no, the end of the Bushes is nowhere in sight.

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