On Saturday the New York Times‘ Ashley Parker wrote a piece that postulated that the reason Jeb Bush is doing so poorly in the GOP primary race is because the Bushes don’t do gutter politics.
DERRY, N.H. — Tennis. Boating. Summers at Walker’s Point.
Life among the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite (or WASPs, in sociological shorthand) was good for a young John Ellis Bush.
James Bruner, whose father was the Bush family pastor at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Me., remembers Mr. Bush, known as Jeb, as a larger-than-life presence at the Kennebunk River Club. His enduring image is of a youthful Mr. Bush “playing tennis in tennis whites” — a white Lacoste shirt, white shorts and canvas sneakers.
“I’ll never forget Jeb kind of stepping back to take a high popper — a kind of lob — and doing an overheard smash that was so loud that it sent the ball down and then up onto the roof behind his opponents,” Mr. Bruner said.
“For me,” Mr. Bruner concluded, “he was like the big cheese on the court.”
But that era of polite and high society — on the courts and playing fields of New England, in the halls of boarding schools and in the corridors of government — is fast fading. And in many ways, the travails of Mr. Bush’s presidential campaign can be seen as perhaps the last, wheezing gasp of the WASP power structure.
Against a frustrated, profoundly un-WASP-like Republican electorate that craves the visceral pugnaciousness of Donald J. Trump or the outsider anger of Senator Ted Cruz, Mr. Bush’s family values — of cordial restraint, of civil discourse, of earnest public service — can seem almost quaint.
Mr. Bush tells voters who wonder why he cannot summon Mr. Trump’s TV-friendly fury that he “wasn’t brought up that way.” He struggles with a basic task in politics — bragging — conceding that, when he does, he feels “the looming presence of Barbara Bush,” his boast-averse mother. And in an age of topic-changing sound bites, he is oddly determined to respond to every inquiry.
“I’ve had 62 years of life that’s been jammed into my DNA that when someone asks you a question, you answer it,” he said recently.
Longtime friends still speak with admiration of Mr. Bush’s anachronistic outlook, sounding a bit like Miss Manners tsk-tsking the political world for leaving its elbows on the table.
C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel under the elder Bush, ticked through the code of conduct the Bush dynasty has long embodied: “Civility and good manners were kind of assumed,” he said.
How nice. Except it’s bullshit. Oh, excuse me. It’s not exactly true. The Bushes know very well how to conduct slash-and-burn campaigns, and always have. Let us not forget Willie Horton and rumors about Kitty Dukakis when Poppy ran for his first term in 1988, and how he ran against “those two bozos” — Bill Clinton and Al Gore — in 1992.
When George W. Bush ran in 2000 against John McCain, who was it that started rumors about Sen. McCain’s “black love child” in South Carolina leading up to the primary, and who was it who made sure that the Swiftboaters got their due in the 2004 campaign against John Kerry?
I grew up with people like the Bushes. I know how the game is played. I know they can be just as vicious and cut-throat as any ward-heeler from Chicago or backroom boss from Tammany Hall. But the difference is that they never touch the stuff. They just hire the people to do it for them.