Politics & Policy

Jeb Bush as Consumers of News Media Seldom Saw Him

Bush speaks at a town hall in Gorham, Mass., July 2015. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Jeb Bush gave his last speech as a presidential candidate in Columbia, S.C., back in February. “In this campaign, I have stood my ground,” he said as polls closed, “refusing to bend to the political winds.” Moments after he dismounted the stage, he grasped my hand and offered me a heartfelt “sorry, John.” I was too caught up in the gloom to say what I thought: “Sir — what the hell do you have to be sorry for?”

This was the governor whom I came to know and respect. Leaders take responsibility. They don’t blame interns when things go wrong. They give credit when things go right, they shoulder the blame when things go wrong. They stand their ground and stand on principle.

Those qualities drew me to Miami a year ago this month, to work for Jeb’s burgeoning campaign. The campaign did not go well; it doesn’t take a seasoned political analyst to state the painfully obvious. But talk to other Jeb veterans. Few, if any, regret the experience.

I was the governor’s national-security and veterans’ adviser. When he launched his campaign, he insisted on offering the best ideas for America’s future. So his policy team was the largest in the pack. Back then, we all naïvely thought that ideas mattered in this screwball election. They don’t. But even after it became clear that Republican voters had more interest in anger than acumen, the governor insisted on sticking to solutions. 

Briefing him was tough. It was akin to being-cross examined by a seasoned prosecutor. I remember consulting him on a fairly non-controversial topic in the GOP primary, the need to rebuild our military. I mentioned that American aircraft were aging fast and that Air Force pilots were flying the equivalent of classic cars over ISIS territory.

“That’s fine,” Jeb interrupted, “but don’t we spend millions upgrading those jets? Don’t we buy newer models even if the designs are old?” He was right, and don’t get him started on the F-35. And though we did eventually, in a national-security rollout, advocate for military modernization, the governor refused to advance an idea until he knew both sides of the issue. When you briefed him, you needed to be prepared to go six follow-up questions deep.

When you briefed Jeb Bush, you needed to be prepared to go six follow-up questions deep.

Another touchy subject was women in combat. At the time, I was thinking of South Carolina and its heavy military and veteran population. Voters there hated the idea. “Just stay the hell away from it,” I advised. “Let the military figure it out.”

Not good enough. “If it’s such a bad idea, give me the reasons,” he said. “What about those two young ladies who made it through Ranger school?” He smiled at the thought of them gutting out a program with 70 percent male attrition. “I think it’s pretty cool.”

He was challenging, but forgiving. In November, I committed the sin that every political staffer fears. I became the story. When Donald Trump said he was open to forcing Muslims into a federal database, I called him a Fascist, on Twitter. Sure enough, that Sunday on Face the Nation, John Dickerson challenged Jeb to stand by my comments. So instead of advancing his vision for America’s future on national television, he had to tap-dance around my big mouth.

It would have been perfectly justifiable for Jeb to fire me. Instead, the only thing I heard about it was from a senior staffer. “Technically speaking, it’s Nazism,” he said, “not Fascism. Also, you misspelled ‘Fascism.’”

He had a big heart and keen sense of propriety. On Thanksgiving weekend, I arranged for him to call members of the Florida National Guard deployed to the Middle East. He told his schedulers to clear space for the calls. Being the typical pushy staffer, I suggested we leak the call details. Jeb refused. “That wasn’t for the campaign.”

One of the biggest absurdities of the 2016 primary was the “low energy” label that stuck to the governor. I remember one morning in Virginia Beach when Jeb went out to exercise with former Navy SEALs. He gleefully forced me along. A veteran myself, I’d been conditioned to show up to these things 20 minutes early. Even then, he beat me to the punch. There he was at 0530 in the hotel lobby, answering e-mails on his phone. He ran a couple of miles with the SEALs and worked a full day afterward.

The public was eager to critique Jeb the candidate. Fine. But I’ve yet to see any worthwhile criticism of his intellect or of his integrity. I’d encourage anyone concerned about our education system, our national debt, or immigration to go back and read his solutions. All smart Republicans up for election this November would do well to claim those ideas for their own. Just ask Trump, who had no problem stealing Jeb’s tax and veterans reform plans outright.

Come November, the GOP’s flirtation with an unserious reality-TV star will likely end. And when it does, the party will need to rebuild itself. Call me naïve, but I do think that the ideas that Jeb articulated – those of inclusiveness, opportunity, and hope for a better future —– will take hold. They are worth standing for, no matter how hard the political winds blow. 

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