1. Florida Politics

George and Jeb Bush: as distinct and alike as brothers can be

President George W. Bush, left, is introduced by his then-Gov. Jeb Bush at an “Ask President Bush’’ campaign rally, at the Okaloosa-Walton Community College gym in Niceville. 
President George W. Bush, left, is introduced by his then-Gov. Jeb Bush at an “Ask President Bush’’ campaign rally, at the Okaloosa-Walton Community College gym in Niceville. 
Published Jan. 28, 2015

WASHINGTON — One day last fall, former President George W. Bush called Mel Sembler, a Republican donor from St. Petersburg who had served as his ambassador to Italy. Sembler had just had a pacemaker implanted into his chest, and his wife had also recently had surgery. Bush wanted to check on how they were faring.

But after the health inquiries, Bush abruptly interjected. "Okay, Mel," he said, "is Jeb going to run?"

"Wait a minute," Sembler recalled answering. "You're asking me is Jeb going to run? He's your brother."

It was a lighthearted exchange, yet also revealing. As Florida's former governor gears up for a possible campaign for the presidency, he is seen as the brother of the last Republican to live in the White House and therefore, in some ways, the second coming of George W. Bush. But the reality is the Bush brothers are not especially close.

While loving and supportive of each other, the two brothers do not talk that often, the New York Times, citing family intimates, reports. Seven years apart in age, they travel in different circles and have distinct political networks. The older brother has been a vocal advocate of a Jeb Bush campaign, but like everyone else reads tea leaves about whether he will run. Indeed, before Jeb Bush announced he would explore a campaign, the former president confided to associates privately, "I may be the last one to know."

On issues, the two certainly share a similar outlook and philosophy. While other Republicans repudiated aspects of the last Bush presidency, Jeb never did. "It's just until death do us part," he told an interviewer who tried to get him to disagree with his brother.

In other ways, though, the 43rd president and the potential 45th president are a curious study in fraternal contrasts — in temperament, in style, in the paths they have chosen in life, in the ways they think and communicate and lead.

"You come away amazed that these two guys could be so different and be brothers," said Jim Towey, a former Florida official who became so close to Jeb Bush that their families spent Thanksgivings together and who went on to work in George W. Bush's White House directing faith-based initiatives. "I love them both. But they're just very different people."

The oldest two sons of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, George W. and Jeb share many traits. Both are deeply religious, schooled in politics, enamored of sports. They are punctual and impatient, rushing through activities, like golf, where others prefer to linger. Both worship their father. Both are conservative on issues like abortion and gun rights, while pushing their party away from orthodoxy in areas like education and immigration.

Yet watching them together might confuse the uninitiated. George, 68, likes to work a room. He teases and needles aides, lawmakers or reporters until he gets a rise. He talks about issues in broad strokes, believes in delegating and sometimes mangles his English.

Several inches taller, Jeb, 61, reads footnotes, emails frenetically and talks in full wonky paragraphs. But in political settings, he sometimes seems to eye the exit, calculating how to get from here to there with the least fuss.

"Former President Bush is much more instantly gregarious, a bigger personality," said Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush's first White House press secretary. "When he walks into a room, he just takes it over, by style and by charm. Jeb is more intellectual, more pensive and more articulate."

Jeb Bush has a quick wit, Fleischer added, but it is softer than his brother's.

"Jeb is very much a policy wonk and comes across that way," he said. "Former President Bush was much more big picture, strong leader, defined things in immediately clear moral terms."

They come at politics from different angles. "Public service seems to be a calling for George Sr. and George Jr., whereas for Jeb it is about a mission," said Clint Bolick, who wrote a book on immigration with Jeb Bush. "It's about policy and ideas. I never really got the impression that either his dad or his brother were really motivated by ideas and policies. For Jeb, politics is a means to an end rather than an end in itself."

• • •

Jeb grew up faster, marrying young and becoming a father at age 23. He was the one the family expected to follow in the family business by running for office. George was not a father until 35, after years of enjoying what he called the four B's — beer, bourbon and B&B liqueur.

"He was more of a late bloomer; I think his period of 'youthful indiscretions' lasted longer than Jeb's," said Ana Navarro, a former aide to Jeb Bush. "Jeb has a more serious demeanor. He's not the type of guy that reaches out to shoot the breeze or just check in. When he contacts you, it's with a purpose."

Describing himself in a 1988 interview, Jeb Bush said, "I am kind of antisocial," attributing that to his mother, who "dislikes phony formalities." That same year, Marvin Bush, the youngest brother, said: "Jeb is the serious one. We have always thought that he would have a public career." And the oldest brother? "George? George is the family clown."

Not surprisingly, neither brother is comfortable with comparisons, and they invariably bristle at oversimplifications. (Among the harshest offered by critics is The Wizard of Oz analogy — one has no heart, the other no brain.) At a joint appearance in 1998, a reporter asked if George was the savvy one and Jeb the smart one. "I'd describe me as the smart one," George interjected.

The two brothers spent their formative years growing up in Midland, Texas, but they experienced the most searing event of their childhood in different ways. When their sister, Robin, died of leukemia, Jeb was an infant, but George was 7, old enough to understand. He took it upon himself to cheer up their devastated mother, adopting a class-clown demeanor that would define his persona for years.

Even as a child, Jeb was solemn and endured typical teasing from his big brother. Both boys went to their father's alma mater, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. But while George headed to Yale University and Harvard Business School, Jeb went to Mexico on a high school exchange and headed home for college, graduating from the University of Texas in three years.

He married Columba Garnica Gallo, a woman he had met in Mexico, at age 21 and moved to Florida to become a real estate developer and begin raising a family. George, by contrast, bounced around Texas oil fields for years, enjoying a liquid, languid youth before finally giving up drinking at age 40 under pressure from his wife, Laura.

• • •

Their father's successful 1988 presidential campaign whetted George's political appetite. After his father lost the presidency four years later, he embarked on his own campaign in 1994 against the popular governor of Texas, a move that surprised his family even as Jeb was already gearing up to run for governor of Florida. While neither admitted it, many detected a quiet competitiveness. Few expected George to win, but he pulled off the upset while Jeb went down to a surprise defeat.

The split result provoked a moment of sibling friction as George expressed frustration that his parents were focused more on Florida. "Why do you feel bad about Jeb?" he was heard asking his father. "Why don't you feel good about me?"

As Jeb rebounded to win Florida's governorship in 1998, George W. Bush was preparing his own run for the White House — one that would climax in the crucible of Jeb's Florida two years later. On election night, when it looked as if Al Gore had won Florida, an emotional Jeb hugged George and apologized for letting him down. He was premature. "Back from the ashes," Jeb called out as more returns came in. For the next five weeks, Florida held the world in suspense until the Supreme Court ended a recount with George W. Bush ahead.

The recount sealed their relationship again, but the new president spent more time with other siblings during his White House years. Marvin, nicknamed "Marvelous," went to the White House to watch sports and spent weekends at Camp David. Dorothy Bush Koch, their sister, visited often. Jeb was spotted mainly during holidays or governors' conferences.

• • •

Now with both out of office, some close to the family say any competitiveness seems to have ebbed, according to the New York Times. Any personal distance is more about Jeb's natural reserve, intimates say. Other family members tell friends that they do not hear from Jeb often, either, except in staccato five- or six-word replies to emails.

Jeb understands that his brother brings both advantages and disadvantages, but he is determined to stand on his own, advisers said. Jeb's inner circle does not include many from his brother's team, although lately he has consulted figures like Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, and Richard Haass, a former State Department official in both Bush administrations.

Recent speeches and interviews have given few indications that Jeb Bush will vary drastically from his brother's record or second-guess decisions like the Iraq invasion. James Glassman, founding director of the George W. Bush Presidential Institute, said that for all their personal distinctions, the brothers were in synch on issues.

At times, Jeb Bush's message even echoes his brother's from 2000. In a recent speech, he called for "humility" in international affairs, echoing George W. Bush's campaign call for a "humble" foreign policy (an approach he arguably discarded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001).

Karen Hughes, a longtime adviser to George W. Bush, said Jeb's domestic ideas sounded like her former boss' compassionate conservative theme.

"I love his 'right to rise' message, which I believe is similar to Gov. George W. Bush's emphasis on reading as the new 'civil right' and view that government should be limited but also promote opportunity," she said.

That was a message that worked once. But if these are different men, these are different times. And George W. Bush is not the only one wondering what Jeb Bush will do.