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Bush in the Wilderness

Illustration by Roberto Parada  

And should that happen, the answer in be 2016 may be a GOP nominee with the courage of his more centrist positions. In other words: Jeb. Even his own son, George P., acknowledges that his father’s declaration that 2012 was “probably my time” contains a significant caveat. “More than anyone, he knows that politics is about timing,” he says. “A lot of it hinges on what happens in November.”

Launching another Bush candidate in the next four (or eight) years would be a delicate operation. Jeb Bush has to not only tame internal divisions in his party but carefully work around the thorny legacy of his brother’s presidency—without seeming to distance himself from the family. The late Ted Kennedy famously said “the dream”—of his brothers—would “never die”; for Jeb, that’s precisely the problem. And he also has to resolve his own Hamlet-like impulses. Six years out of office, Jeb Bush seems to carry a certain torment as he ponders his future—a psychological problem that runs in dynasties.

But the gravitational pull of money and Bush-family Manifest Destiny—and, if Romney loses, party desperation—may be too great. As James A. Baker III, secretary of State under 41, the man who helped propel George H.W. Bush to power 40 years ago, tells me: If he were writing this story, “I would not conclude that we’re not going to ever see another Bush candidate.”

This past June, the Bush family and their closest friends converged on Walker’s Point, their compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, to celebrate the 88th birthday of the patriarch, President George Herbert Walker Bush. To herald the occasion, HBO had set up a screening of 41, which was produced by his longtime friend the producer Jerry Weintraub. At the dinner party afterward, there was a palpable sense that Bush was taking a final victory lap. Behind the scenes, the family was already making advance funeral arrangements and encouraging news outlets to prepare obituaries. Bound to a wheelchair and suffering from a Parkinson’s-like disorder, he smiled softly, easily brought to tears.

In the room were Brent Scowcroft, his old friend and former national-security adviser—and the 43rd president, his son George W. Bush. For some, the shadows of the family psychodrama were alive in the room. When W., whose controversial presidency had been a kind of rebuttal to his father’s, was asked to give an impromptu toast honoring the man he had both worshipped and sought to overcome his entire life, witnesses say he appeared pinched and unhappy, his toast perfunctory. “It was highly unemotional,” says an attendee.

For all his legendary swagger, W. shrank in the presence of his father, either out of deference or something else. Perhaps he merely resented the presence of the eastern elite he detested, people like Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes and HBO CEO Richard Plepler. “It was a weird evening,” says the attendee. “He knew that the Time Warner executives were not his base, and so here he is in his house with the Hollywood ‘a-leet,’ as he calls them.

“He’s become increasingly agoraphobic,” this person adds of the former president. “He looked startled by the whole thing. But he doesn’t like people, he never did, he doesn’t now.”

Indeed, George W. Bush, now 66, has spent the past few years living as invisibly as possible, working diligently on his golf game at the Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas, showing up at a Rangers baseball game, or being spotted eating a steak in one of his favorite restaurants. While the rest of the world judges his years in office, he’s taken up painting, making portraits of dogs and arid Texas landscapes. “I find it stunning that he has the patience to sit and take instruction and paint,” says a former aide.

He gets a regular drip feed of political news from Karl Rove and others—he’s been critical of Romney’s campaign and skeptical of his chances. He meets once a month with the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University to review the latest policy projects and occasionally escapes to Africa, where this summer he led a delegation bringing attention to the epidemics of cervical cancer. There, he finds the adoration and respect he doesn’t often find outside Texas. The most unpopular president in recent political history, W. left a record of big-government spending and intractable wars that remains difficult even for allies to defend. In interviews, both Scowcroft and Baker struggled to praise Bush 41, the father, for his handling of the Gulf War without implicitly criticizing 43’s invasion and occupation of Iraq (“A somewhat different perspective on international relations,” says Scowcroft gingerly). Bush 43 had taken his father’s inheritance—including several members of his administration, like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney—and used them to dismantle his father’s legacy. But for all the foreign-policy issues, it was the collapse of the economy that left the biggest and most complex political aftermath for the Bushes. The Medicare prescription-drug-benefit bill in 2003, conceived by Bush strategist Karl Rove to capture Florida in the reelection, would add nearly $400 billion to the deficit, which the Bush administration would run over $10 trillion by January 2009. Bush’s authorization of the bailout of the big banks was the genesis of the groundswell that morphed into the tea party—making the Bush name the biggest liability to Republican power since Richard Nixon.