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Bush in the Wilderness

W. remains convinced history will vindicate him. But the Bush family is well aware of the damage to their future prospects. Perhaps none more than Jeb, the new custodian of the family brand. “Jeb is highly pained,” says a friend. “He is so loyal. Jeb knows some of the missteps, but Jeb is profoundly impacted by the kind of criticism he’s taken about his brother. It’s over the top.”

Of the five children of George H.W. and Barbara Bush—George W., Marvin, Jeb, Neil, and Doro—Jeb was the only one absent from the HBO screening. He had spent the previous week with the family in Maine, but left for New York before the celebration. On his father’s birthday, Jeb made big news from comments at a panel for the “a-leet” at Bloomberg LP, where he laid out a wholesale critique of the Republican Party—using his father as his political pole star. His father, he said, “would have a hard time” under the current Republican “orthodoxy,” which “doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground.

“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time, they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support.”

If you took Jeb Bush at face value, it might look as if he were throwing in the towel on American politics. “Here’s what I heard him say,” says a former official in Bush 43’s White House. “ ‘Fuck this.’ That’s what I heard. ‘This has gotten ­crazy, and I don’t want any part of this.’ ”

But Jeb’s statements performed valuable political work. They instantly made him the reasonable man of the Republican Party, an Establishment shepherd in the political wilderness, a role that should come in handy if Romney loses. In studiously avoiding mention of George W. Bush, he stealthily edited the 43rd presidency from his proposed golden era of compromise, positioning the Bush-family brand as signifying the reconciliation and even-keeled temperament of his father rather than the sensationally polarized presidency of his brother.

For those paying attention, Jeb Bush’s comments were not out of left field. They were only the public articulation of a drumbeat that had begun when the tea party began its revolt against the Republican Party four years ago. In the 2010 Texas governor’s race, the Bushes had backed the campaign of Senator Kay ­Bailey Hutchison against Rick Perry but failed to counter Perry’s tea-party-powered campaign. And Barbara Bush, the family matriarch, dismissed tea-party heroine Sarah Palin with the stiletto comment that “she’s very happy in Alaska, and I hope she’ll stay there.”

“I have great sympathy with what Jeb said,” says Scowcroft, whose famous 2002 Wall Street Journal editorial against the invasion of Iraq became signal evidence of 41’s disapproval of 43’s war. “I’m a lifelong Republican, and I haven’t changed my views at all, but now I’m called a rino.”

“We judge our presidents by how much they get accomplished, how much they get through the Congress,” notes James Baker, “and that will require some element of working with the other side.”

Jeb has also been willing to buck hardened GOP dogma. In early June, he told the House Budget Committee during a hearing on economic growth that he could accept a theoretical debt-reduction deal in which taxes were raised by a dollar for every $10 of spending cuts. “Put me in, coach,” he said.

The Bush dynasty is based on an ideal of public service, and a set of highly specific blueprints about how to synergize success in the private sector with a political career—but a key pillar is Barbara Bush’s Rolodex. A long-suffering political spouse toughened by the tragic loss of a daughter to leukemia in 1953, “Bar,” as she’s called, organized her husband’s network of friends into a Christmas-card list that doubled as a donor file, the foundation for the family’s political network. That list was chock-full of the oil-and-energy-­industry executives George H.W. Bush had met through his moneymaking venture, Zapata Petroleum, and it provided the resources for every race the father and sons would run for the next 40 years.

Today, that card list is a computer database in Houston controlled by Jean Becker, President H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. John Ellis, a Bush cousin, says that network is alive and well. “The network is huge,” he says, “and powerful. So if Mitt Romney loses the election, and Jeb decides he wants to run for president, instantly there’s $30 million in the bank, instantly there’s a network of friends and supporters.”

While the network sits moribund, awaiting a Bush candidate, W.’s legendary “brain” and political footman, Karl Rove, has virtually absconded with the Rolodex, using it to christen himself party boss and kingmaker of the GOP. The Rove-conceived American Crossroads super-pac network is populated with the same oilmen and real-estate tycoons who fueled the Bushes. For W.’s cause, Rove was a brilliant tactician, and he helped build the network. But the larger family has long looked askance at Rove—Jeb Bush and his parents, especially Bar, don’t trust him, according to several family associates.