Column: President Bush’s charm offers lesson for today

In this April 19, 2006 file photo, President George W. Bush, accompanied by his brother, then-Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. (Ron Edmonds, File/AP)

In this April 19, 2006 file photo, President George W. Bush, accompanied by his brother, then-Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. (Ron Edmonds, File/AP)

We hear very little from President Obama’s predecessor these days. George W. Bush left the White House a very unpopular president. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had grown intensely controversial and had worn out the American people. The bursting of the U.S. housing bubble and global financial crisis coincided with his exit, leaving Americans with a strong distaste for Bush’s presidency.

After his exit, George W. Bush has refrained from commenting on issues of public concern and has generally removed himself from the public eye, preferring to devote his time to his family and his painting. Yet, when President Bush does appear in the news, we again realize why many Americans found him so likable and chose to vote for him.

President Bush is charismatic, funny, self-deprecating and he exudes authenticity, qualities that make him an inherently attractive individual and politician. While some of his policies were intensely controversial and arguably wrongheaded, current presidential hopefuls should take notes from the former president.

At a recent fundraiser for his brother Jeb, George announced to a room of donors how he felt about Texas Senator Ted Cruz. He did not pull any punches, saying, “I just don’t like the guy” and suggesting that his appearances with current frontrunner Donald Trump were selfish calculations made in an effort to skim some of Trump’s support for himself, as noted in Politico.

Bush poked fun at some of the other GOP candidates, but reserved serious criticism for Senator Cruz. Bush’s moment of candor, expressing a personal dislike of Ted Cruz, is refreshing. Cruz is, quite frankly, a distinctly unlikeable person and it is nice to hear an honest statement from a politician saying so. 

Ted Cruz said “I met my wife Heidi working on his campaign, and so I will always be grateful to him.” This is a disingenuous and self-serving response, and should only inspire collective groans, eye rolls and deepening annoyance with Senator Cruz. In general, candidates often either maintain an attitude of collegiality and respectfulness toward party rivals that is almost saccharine or attack them overzealously in an effort to gain political points. Bush’s honest and unassuming statement of dislike is fresh, authentic and welcome in today’s political culture.

Yet, President Bush also blends frankness with light-hearted humor, as he did in his statements on Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Politico quotes Bush, saying, “‘He’s a young, first-term senator; I’m not sure if that qualifies you to be president,’ Bush reportedly said, according to two people in the room. ‘Of course if he wins [the nomination], I’ll be back here next year telling you that doesn’t matter.’”

This frank and humorous attitude toward political opportunism in presidential campaigns is the kind of honesty and fun take that Americans earnestly desire from their politicians. Bush’s statements poke fun both at himself as well as the political culture he is a part of. If there is anything Americans love to see, it is mockery of the behavior of politicians. 

Also said in Politico, Bush stated, “There’s a lot of people in this country who speak broken English…Well, I’m one of them.” President Bush’s ability to laugh at himself is eminently charming and is an endearing quality in anyone.

Today’s presidential candidates should look at President Bush’s character and likeability for guidance. Perhaps it is the general lack of his personal qualities in the crowded GOP field that is driving many to support Trump. Though he may spout nonsense and hyperbole, one cannot deny Trump has a certain charm and authenticity that is attractive and entertaining.

Americans do not want a perfectly prepped and humorless candidate. Rather, they want a candidate who is human, someone who is charismatic, funny and honest about politicians. If more candidates were not afraid to emulate some of President Bush’s most likeable character traits and gave up on squeaky clean, focus group prepped images and statements, perhaps Trump would lose much of his appeal.

There is a reason why Hillary Clinton’s abrupt “No” during the Democratic debate was so popular. It was a humorous, unexpectedly human response that was refreshing given the typical debate routine.

Many criticized the decision to elect George Bush, arguing that Americans should not vote for the candidate they would have a beer with, but the one with the best policy platform. While this may be a noble ideal, politicians and Americans should learn from our experience with President Bush that likability is here to stay as a determining factor in presidential politics.


Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.