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For Jeb Bush, One More Father-Brother White House Question To Answer

Former President George H.W. Bush pumps his fist next to his son, Jeb, during a fundraiser in Tampa, Fla., in 1994. Jeb Bush was running for governor. He lost that year, but won four years later.
Chris O'Meara
Former President George H.W. Bush pumps his fist next to his son, Jeb, during a fundraiser in Tampa, Fla., in 1994. Jeb Bush was running for governor. He lost that year, but won four years later.

Whatever else Jeb Bush's campaign for president might need right now, it doesn't need a renewal of the controversies about his father's and brother's years in the White House.

Yet the release of a new biography of the elder President Bush by journalist and author Jon Meacham has reopened some old wounds and renewed the debate over the Iraq War. Or perhaps that should be wars.

President George H.W. Bush went to war with Saddam Hussein in 1991, and his son, President George W. Bush, did so in 2003. Some thought the first of these wars ended too soon, leaving Hussein in power. The second Iraq War removed Hussein, but the subsequent sectarian-political struggle there has continued for more than a dozen years and counting.

In the new biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Meacham quotes the elder Bush complaining about some of the men who had the strongest influence on the younger Bush's foreign policy. According to the elder Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, had become "just iron-ass" in responding to terror threats around the world after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer," the elder Bush said. "It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry."

The elder Bush is quoted using the same "iron-ass" term to describe his son's first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was seen as working closely with Cheney, a onetime protege, in the second Bush administration. The elder Bush also called Rumsfeld "an arrogant fellow," adding, "I don't like what he did, and I think it hurt the president having his iron-ass view of everything."

The younger President Bush has told Meacham that his father had not shared these thoughts with him at the time. Cheney said he also had heard no such sentiments from the elder Bush, whom he had served as secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993. Rumsfeld, reached for comment, said the elder Bush "was getting on in years." Rumsfeld is 83, the first President Bush is 91.

All this became yet another distraction in the tumultuous campaign of the latest Bush to seek the White House. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida (1999 to 2007), focused his governorship on budget, taxes and education policy. His presidential campaign has also stressed these issues, but without making much of a connection with Republican primary voters to date.

In the early going this year, Jeb Bush and his affiliated superPAC raised more than $100 million and set the funding pace for all candidates. But his performances in the first three GOP debates have been lackluster at best, and his poll numbers have trended downward into single digits.

On Thursday, his campaign was confronted with the Meacham book and the suggestion that the elder Bush had disapproved of key decision-makers — if not key decisions — in his son's White House.

Although Jeb Bush himself has said that "knowing what we know now" he would have pursued a different policy in Iraq, he said Thursday his father was not second-guessing.

"I think my dad, like a lot of people that love George [W. Bush], want to try to create a different narrative, perhaps 'cause that's natural to do, right?" he said.

But Jeb quickly added that his brother would own all the Iraq War decisions, saying: "I was commander in chief; I was the leader, and I accept personal responsibility for what happened — both the good and the bad."

He pointed out that Cheney "served my brother well as vice president, and he served my dad extraordinarily well as secretary of defense. The context changes — we've got to get beyond this feeling that somehow 1991 is the same as 2001, which is the same as 2017. It isn't."

Jeb Bush said there were lessons to be learned from both Bush presidencies, as well as those of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The issue might not be easily dismissed, however, in part, because Jeb Bush earlier this year announced a team of advisers on national security and foreign policy that included at least two well-known members of the Rumsfeld-Cheney team in the second Bush White House — Paul Wolfowitz and John Negroponte. Both men also worked for Reagan and the first President Bush.

Wolfowitz was Rumsfeld's deputy secretary and had written extensively on Iraq and the need for a Western-oriented regime there. He was considered by some the architect of the aggressive policy the younger Bush ultimately adopted in Iraq. Wolfowitz later served as president of the World Bank from 2005 to 2007 and then as a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

Negroponte, a career diplomat and policy adviser, was a major figure in the Latin American foreign policy of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, serving as ambassador to Mexico and Honduras. In the second Bush administration, he became ambassador to the United Nations, then to Iraq after Hussein's overthrow. From 2005 to 2007, he served as the first Cabinet-level director of National Intelligence, and from 2007 to 2009, as deputy secretary of state.

In announcing his team in February, Jeb Bush said: "America does not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world. We have no reason to apologize for our leadership ... nothing and no one can replace strong American leadership."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.