In a time of outsider politics, can the ultimate insider resurrect his family’s brand?
By Elaina Plott, The Atlantic, May 2019
George prescott bush wants you to know that he is not low-energy.
At least, that’s the distinct impression I got when I encountered Bush, the elder son of Jeb and leading repository for the hopes of an endangered political dynasty, one January morning at a CrossFit gym in Austin, Texas.
The day before, Bush had switched up our meeting place from a barbecue joint, where we were supposed to have lunch, to the gym, where I assumed we would exercise. But when I showed up at the appointed time in hastily acquired workout garb, Bush, who was lifting a heavy object, looked at me like I was an alien.
The biggest misconception, he said, is “that I’m in lockstep with them on everything.” He cited public funding of Planned Parenthood as one point of disagreement. He said other members of his family were “pretty much in support of that,” but he’s been against abortion rights his whole political career. It’s an issue that Bush, who is Catholic, says is “core to my values.”
“Oh!” he said once the fog of confusion lifted. “You look like you’re ready for a class yourself!”
It quickly became clear that Bush, who was dressed in a black T-shirt, black mesh shorts, and a black baseball cap that read come and take it (a reference to the Texas Revolution), had not invited me to CrossFit to work out, but to catch the end of his own session. Once we had that sorted out, we sat down at a table near the middle of the gym, where, to a pulsing soundtrack featuring lyrics like I love bad bitches, that’s my fuckin’ problem, I asked questions about his political future.
Being a scion of one of America’s leading political families comes with the advantage of inherited hindsight, or the ability to parse what sold (and what didn’t) in those who came before you. Bush, who is 43 and goes by George P., can seem like the updated and optimized product of his forebears. Like his grandfather, he has a patrician jawline. Like his Mexican-born mother (and the soon-to-be plurality of Texans), he identifies as Latino. His love of policy recalls his father, while his relaxed manner recalls his uncle—he’s the kind of person you can see yourself grabbing a beer with. And what he lacks in his uncle’s easy charm, he makes up for in solid pronunciation skills. Unlike any of his elders, moreover, he actually won his first race—in 2014, for Texas land commissioner, an office he was reelected to in 2018.
But Bush would rather not endure comparisons. He would prefer to prove that he is (as so many of those close to him have emphasized to me) his own man, with his own ideas. He knows that what’s in now are the underdogs, the disrupters, the figures strange enough to accommodate this very strange moment. And the last presidential election (see Jeb’s “Please clap” moment) suggested that the Bush family was anything but. All the same, he seems to view his father’s fate in 2016 as instructive rather than prophetic.
George P. Bush is running. For what? Probably governor of Texas. When? It’s too soon to say. But he’s inched his way into the national consciousness in the past two years, first as the lone Bush to endorse Donald Trump for president, and more recently as the final person to eulogize George H. W. Bush before he was laid to rest.
Which is to say, Bush is moving now to claim his title as Future of the GOP. But will the party of Trump tolerate a candidate who mirrors a past class of conservatives in tone, in temperament, in ideology? And even if Bush does manage to satisfy the base’s newly populist appetites, can he do so without alienating the broader cross-section of voters needed to win a general election?
As he struggles to reconcile these demands, Bush has wobbled. His balancing act stands to become only more precarious going forward: Last year’s midterms revealed a Texas just this side of purple, a shade that promises to deepen in the years ahead.
Before the last presidential election, few people were giving much thought to George P. Bush’s existence. That changed in August 2016. At the time, the Bush family was resolutely #NeverTrump. But at a Texas GOP gathering, Bush broke ranks. He told activists that, although it was a “bitter pill to swallow,” the time had come to get behind Donald Trump in order to “stop Hillary Clinton.”
As the Texas GOP’s victory chair—the person leading the state party’s election efforts—he said he didn’t have much of a choice. “I couldn’t look grassroots activists in the face and say, ‘Well, Trump is good enough for you, but not for me,’ ” he told me at CrossFit. He said his father understood. “To be honest with you, I think he took it a little easier than the rest of my family … My uncle, though—that did require a sit-down.” He delivered the news in the library of the 43rd president’s home in Dallas, whereupon his uncle expressed concern that the endorsement could be “a short-term gain for a long-term cost.” As for George W. Bush’s relationship with Trump today: He “is not going to be the one to engage in a war of words on Twitter.” If he were asked for advice, Bush continued, the former president would sit down with the current one and provide it. But that advice hasn’t been requested, so what Bush describes as a “contentious relationship” continues.
Bush’s endorsement may have made for awkward conversations with his family, but it served him well with other Texas Republicans. He constantly fields questions from voters about just how aligned his politics are with his family’s. The biggest misconception, he said, is “that I’m in lockstep with them on everything.” He cited public funding of Planned Parenthood as one point of disagreement. He said other members of his family were “pretty much in support of that,” but he’s been against abortion rights his whole political career. It’s an issue that Bush, who is Catholic, says is “core to my values.”
For Bush, endorsing Trump, however tepidly, was a chance to add another bullet point to his I’m-my-own-man list. Yes, he had the same concerns about the real-estate mogul as many other traditional Republicans did, the biggest one being whether he could defend Trump’s character to his children. Bush told me it’s a reservation “that I still have, honestly.” But he managed to express his concerns about Trump without the holier-than-thou tenor that helped tank the careers of so many other Republicans, including his father.
In the lead-up to Bush’s 2018 reelection campaign for land commissioner, this was smart politics: Texas favored Trump over Clinton by a 9 percent margin. His endorsement also opened the door to a friendship with Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., who agreed to headline a fundraiser for Bush in New York last summer, only to pull out at the last minute, after Jeb Bush condemned Trump’s family-separation policy as “heartless” on Twitter. “Don called me and said, ‘Look, I’m in an awkward position. I can’t do this.’ And I said I understood,” Bush told me. (He says his father responded “So what?” to the fallout.) Thereafter, he tried to reassure voters that he still had his “own message,” distinct from his family’s. “I also have my own friendships,” he added.
Some in Texas—including those Democrats who understood Bush’s political need to endorse Trump—wondered whether, in his general silence on presidential positions important to Texas, such as immigration, Bush was now sliding too far in Trump’s direction. They were also beginning to wonder whether the young Hispanic Republican’s potential to unite Texas voters might go unrealized.
“Eight years ago, he was kind of this rising star,” says James Aldrete, a Democratic strategist in Texas. “But Trump has taken the party,” and Bush has decided, to his father’s embarrassment, to go along. To stay relevant at this point, Aldrete thinks that Bush would have to commit to “reshaping and saving” his party. “You haven’t seen that courage from him so far.”
There was a time when Bush didn’t have to try so hard to distinguish himself from his family. In fact, when he was younger, he looked on track to be one of its black sheep.
In 1993, when his father launched his first bid for Florida governor, Bush, who was then 17, and his two younger siblings found themselves suddenly in the limelight. But the happy and well-coiffed image that the extended Bush family had always projected felt out of step with reality.
That reality included the fact that Bush’s 16-year-old sister, Noelle, had been using progressively harsher drugs since middle school, and that Bush himself was struggling academically in his first semester at Rice University. It also included an episode that New Year’s Eve in which a shirtless Bush tried to break into an ex-girlfriend’s home. Caught in the act by her father, according to the resulting police report, he fled—but came back 20 minutes later with his car, in which he proceeded to do donuts across her 80-foot lawn. The family declined to press charges. “I think that any kid growing up wants to define themselves,” Bush says of those days. “Emotionally, I wasn’t mature.”
He said he “grew into a man” after his fitful first years of college. “I started to take life a little bit more seriously and started to think about other people instead of just myself.” He worked his way onto the honor roll and recommitted himself to his Catholic faith. And over steak dinners at Morton’s and Tex-Mex at Molina’s in Houston, he began asking his grandparents about politics.
Barbara Bush told him what she had told every member of her brood who was considering elected office: Experience life—and make your own mark, independent of your father’s—before you try to represent the lives of others.
So he did. After graduating from Rice, he taught history at a public school in Florida. He attended law school in Texas, then stayed in the state to practice corporate law. He got married and had two children. He ran a real-estate private-equity firm. He joined the Navy, and served more than a year in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. Bush found his career path at once fulfilling and blessedly under the radar. Even his race for land commissioner, which he won handily, made few headlines.
Nonetheless, a political profile was taking shape. Bush was an ideal avatar for the kind of voter the party, in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, hoped to recruit—young, pragmatic, nonwhite, fluent in Spanish. He was also likable. “He’s a warm, relaxed guy,” says Will Hurd, a Republican who represents a congressional district in southwestern Texas. “It’s actually quite rare. And if people don’t like you, they’re not going to listen to you.”
Not that everyone liked Bush. Soon after starting the job, he became the target of some of the far-right voters his party hoped he might counterbalance. As land commissioner, he announced a full-scale renovation of the Alamo. The project might have inflamed tensions whoever was in charge—we’re talking about Texas and, well, the Alamo. But when Bush called for moving the monument honoring those who died in battle closer to their graves, he met with blowback from right-wing critics who (invoking the removal of Confederate monuments) accused him of meddling with history. Observers I spoke with, including Democrats, were impressed that Bush held firm and managed to trounce a primary challenger at the same time. “It’s not just the Bush name—there’s something more in him,” says Mustafa Tameez, a top Democratic consultant in Texas. Indeed, he added, “a Bush name in the primary is not the best thing.”
Bush was reelected land commissioner with nearly 54 percent of the vote, the highest share of any statewide Republican candidate last year apart from Governor Greg Abbott. But overall, Texas Republicans were rattled by the election results. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke came within three points of beating Ted Cruz in the Senate race. O’Rourke’s popularity, meanwhile, carried many down-ballot Democrats to victory, leaving Republicans with a paltry 18-seat margin in the state House. “If we have another night in 2020 like we did a few months ago, we’ll lose the House,” Bush told me, adding that Texas is in danger of becoming a “truly purple state.”
In August 2018, a group of Republicans began pushing to oust the vice chairman of Tarrant County’s Republican Party, Shahid Shafi, because he is Muslim. The group accused Shafi of following Sharia law; one member declared his appointment that July “a demoralizing blow to the conservative rank and file of the Republican Party.” Shafi—a surgeon and city-council member—was forced to clarify that he had never advocated for Sharia, and didn’t belong to “any terrorist organization.”
The episode brought into relief the Texas GOP’s predicament. That local party members had demonized Shafi’s religion proved they were bigots. That their bigotry played out in a historically red county that O’Rourke went on to win suggested they also had a political death wish. Bush likes to say that a “renaissance of classical conservatism” can yet help steer Republicans back to mainstream political favor. But with little evidence that Trump’s grip on the party is loosening, Bush’s political survival may hinge on whether he waits passively for such a renaissance, or tries to launch one himself.
Perhaps realizing this, Bush was the first statewide Republican official to condemn the group. “We must move towards a more inclusive Republican Party and stop tearing down our own if we are to keep Texas red,” he tweeted.
Ultimately, the county party voted to keep Shafi on as vice chairman, but the ordeal still weighs on Bush’s mind. “There’s a lot at stake in 2020, and I don’t know how much more I can say this to my fellow leaders in the state party,” he told me. “We talk in echo chambers. We don’t go to college campuses. We’ve given up going to churches and synagogues, to black communities and Asian communities that hold many of our beliefs but haven’t heard the message.” He then mentioned his own visits to the highly diverse county of Fort Bend, where he took part in a Chinese New Year celebration and delivered a speech, which was translated into Chinese, about voter registration and civic engagement. “Those are the types of things we need to do.”
But how does one sell the party of Trump to communities he’s repeatedly disparaged? On immigration, Bush claims that the challenge isn’t one of substance. “It’s the tone that is not working,” he said, adding that “Texas wants the national government to come forward with solutions,” such as “supporting Border Patrol,” “strategically located physical structures,” and a plan to deal with people who have overstayed their visas, which Bush feels is “the most overlooked issue.”
But however much Bush adjusts his own tone, or focuses on advancing reasonable policies, he’s still tied to the president—and he still feels he needs to be. This helps explain his often awkward dance over the past two years. How he endorsed Trump in 2016, but rarely utters his name. How he joined members of his party in denouncing the “liberal fake news,” but spoke up when they villainized a Muslim party official. How Bush repeatedly described to me significant differences of opinion with Trump—he called NAFTA the “most important free-trade agreement in Texas state history,” and said John Kelly’s and James Mattis’s departures from the administration were a threat to its “stability”—but said he does not support a primary challenge to Trump “right now.”
Perhaps Bush’s seesaw approach to the president will be enough to secure his next office. Or perhaps Trump’s Texas base will continue to grow more fervent, at the same time that Democrats continue to mobilize millions of voters. In that case, Bush’s future may be determined not by his ability to bridge the political chasm, but by his willingness to pick a side.
Article first appeared at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/05/george-p-bush-trump/586003/