Bush, 91, bewildered by 2016 race

Former president George H. W. Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Houston Astros third baseman Jed Lowrie as his wife, Mrs Barbara Bush, looks on prior to Game 3 of the American League Division against the Kansas City Royals.
Former president George H. W. Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Houston Astros third baseman Jed Lowrie as his wife, Mrs Barbara Bush, looks on prior to Game 3 of the American League Division against the Kansas City Royals.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • He has given up his "CSI" reruns, consuming campaign coverage on Fox News - intently, but fretfully - when he is perched in front of the television in his Houston home.

He reads three print newspapers daily, dials into briefings given by advisers to his son Jeb's presidential campaign and stays up late to watch prime-time debates.

Yet former president George Bush, 91, and frail, is straining to understand an election season that has, for his son and the Republican Party, lurched sharply and stunningly off script. And he is often bewildered by what he sees.

"I'm getting old," he told friends, appraising today's politics, "at just the right time."

These are confounding days for the Bush family and the network of advisers, donors and supporters who have helped sustain a political dynasty that began with the Senate victory by Mr Prescott Bush, the older Bush's father, in Connecticut 63 years ago.

They have watched the rise of Mr Donald Trump with alarm, and seen how Mr Jeb Bush, the one-time Florida governor, has languished despite early advantages of political pedigree and campaign money.

On Friday, the Bush campaign said it was slashing staff salaries and positions after disappointing polls and lacklustre debate performances, a recognition that a vast operation, built when Mr Jeb Bush was leading the pack early this year, cannot be maintained.

No one, it seems, is more perplexed than the family patriarch by the race, and by what the Republican Party has become in its embrace of anti-establishment outsiders, especially the sometimes rude Mr Trump. In July, even after breaking a vertebra in a fall that left him hospitalised in Maine, the elder Bush was fuming at the news of the day: Mr Trump had belittled Senator John McCain of Arizona for being taken prisoner in Vietnam.

"I can't understand how somebody could say that and still be taken seriously," said Mr Bush, himself a naval aviator in World War II, according to his longtime spokesman, Mr Jim McGrath.

Over the weekend, generations of Bush loyalists descended on a Houston hotel for a gathering for Mr Jeb Bush's campaign. Strategists were eager to reassure them and highlight the campaign's relative organisational strength, fund-raising capacity and ability to endure a delegate battle that could last well into spring.

The Bush name has been prominent in national politics for three decades, and a rejection of the younger son by the electorate, especially in the primary, could be deeply wounding to a family proud of its role in American history. 

But the Bushes do not talk much about losing. Mr George W. Bush, who has become a regular on the fund-raising circuit for his younger brother, tells audiences that he and his father have developed a routine.

The elder Bush asks his son: "When is the inauguration?"

Mr George W. Bush reminds him that it is January of 2017.

"I'll be there," the father replies.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Bush, 91, bewildered by 2016 race'. Print Edition | Subscribe