Kathleen Parker: Bushes unleashed

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON — If the truth sets us free, then Bush family members should be warbling from rooftops.

At least one Bush, patriarch George H.W. Bush, has been singing his heart out with author Jon Meacham, whose biography of the 41st president will soon be released.

Early excerpts and reviews already have wags talking and tails wagging for more morsels from the well-stocked pantry of Bush Sr.’s mind. Among other nuggets, we’ve learned that his favorite term for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld is “iron ass,” a phrase one can’t resist saying as much as possible.

Cheney, who was secretary of defense under the first Bush, has responded that he considers the description a compliment, while Rumsfeld replied that Bush is “getting up in years.”

Then again, perhaps the 83-year-old Rumsfeld was projecting. In any case, Meacham’s book has been a work in progress for several years. These weren’t just-yesterday’s musings. Meacham said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he offered Bush a chance to clarify his statements shortly before going to publication.

“That’s what I said,” Bush responded.

Meacham explained that Bush cares deeply about history and recorded his thoughts during both his vice presidency and presidency. He wanted history to get the facts right, even if the facts included criticism of his own son’s bellicosity and swagger after 9/11, which Bush Sr. blamed partly on Cheney and Rumsfeld. But he also said that George W. was ultimately responsible for the tone of his administration and the actions it took.

No one would agree more than W. himself, who would never pass the buck.

As to Rumsfeld’s attempt to minimize the senior Bush’s credibility, there’s a far more likely explanation for his candor: Age also sets you free.

By 91 (and even long before), people become liberated from the inhibitions of life’s imagined consequences. What does Bush have to lose by telling the truth? Certainly not the affection of his children, who can hardly talk about their father without becoming emotional.

There’s something else, too, that sets people free, which can be seen in Jeb Bush’s recent reset: being an underdog. Just as many politicians are never finer than when they lose — think Al Gore’s 2000 concession speech — Jeb may be experiencing the freedom that comes from having less to lose.

And so he has promised to stop trying to be something he’s not. Whew, what a relief. For him, this means no more scripted lines and prepackaging by helpful staffers. He’s going to be his Jeb-best.

Along with fresh promises, Bush has shared some confessions: He needs to do a better job in debates; give shorter answers; bridge from questions to things he wants to talk about. These are all recommendations from a newly hired consultant, but it’s essentially TV 101.

Although some have suggested that the Bush book couldn’t come at a worse time for him, the opposite may be the case.

Rather than having to continue wrangling with the dynasty issue, Jeb may have a way out. First, he can say what he really thinks. Second, thanks to his father’s observations, a clearer picture of Jeb is emerging that distinguishes him from his brother.

Stylistically, Jeb is more his father than his brother and plainly wasn’t bequeathed the swagger gene. Bellicose isn’t a word one imagines using to describe Jeb, as his father did George W. Intellectually curious with a propensity to linger long over policy is more like it.

Also like his father, Jeb has become an open book of late. In New Hampshire last week during a wide-ranging interview with MSNBC’S Kasie Hunt, he spoke candidly about his daughter’s drug addiction and the family’s challenges through her years of rehab and even her short stint in jail.

The interview was probably Bush’s best moment because it was his most honest. In addition to truth’s power to liberate, truth is where humility greets our humanity. At the end of the day, it is the human struggle that unites us; empathy is what makes us human.

Jeb Bush may lose the primary election, but it won’t be because he’s just another Bush. From that, at least, he’s free at last.

Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com

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