The other day Jeb Bush said something about the presidency so fundamentally wrong that it crystallized why his campaign has the vapors, sputtering to just 2.8 percent in Iowa.
During one of many harangues against Donald Trump, Bush told a small gathering in New Hampshire, “We’re not electing a personality. We’re electing someone who has to sit behind the big desk and make tough decisions.” Separately, he proclaimed himself an introvert, one who “would rather read a book than go out and get in a conga line and go dancing.”
The thesis of the Bush campaign is that voters crave a competent manager to make reasonable decisions – not a celebrity or a personality. This is a total misunderstanding of the modern presidency. My first witness is his father.
In 1988, when George H.W. Bush sought the presidency, he lambasted his opponent, Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, for claiming the election was about competence.
Bush understood that the American people wanted something bigger in their presidents. Which is why he created a persona that they might favor. In the 1980s, at least, the private Bush was a kindly aristocrat with moderate tendencies. The public one was a just-folks Texan who liked pork rinds and country music.
His son – and my former boss – George W. Bush was an even better political performer. In private, Bush was a pragmatic guy. But he ran for president as an even more macho version of his dad. He was dismissed by critics as an arrogant frat boy, which was fine with him. “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger,” he acknowledged. “Which in Texas is called ‘walkin.’”
Sometimes, when I observed the president with his boots on the desk and his muscular syntax, I’d think he was putting on a show. At the time I found that fraudulent. Now, I realize it was necessary.
There is no more important role for a president than that of a performer. A leader who will vow to avenge “a day that will live in infamy.” Or go to Berlin and call on a Soviet leader to tear the wall down. Or stand on a pile of rubble with a bullhorn and promise to bring the bad guys to justice. The parent who drives through a blizzard, feeling the car shifting on the slippery road, while telling the kids in the back seat that everything is going just fine and getting them to sing a song.
In the modern era the president is also celebrity-in-chief.
Does anyone other than Jeb Bush believe that Americans marvel at how efficiently the president cleans out his inbox? Or applaud him for successfully refereeing a dispute between the secretaries of commerce and agriculture? Voters aren’t looking for an administrator-in-chief.
That’s why Bush is losing. Even if he does somehow negative-ad his way to the presidency, he’s doomed to fail because he doesn’t understand the theater of that office.
Whether Trump makes it to the nominating convention or not – now a shakier prospect than it was just days ago – he’s clearly figured out that this running for president thing has everything to do with creating a persona.
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal, ” his 1987 book. “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”
“The Art of the Deal,” Trump tells us, is the bestselling business book of all time. It matters only to fact-checkers and the faltering campaigns of his rivals that this claim is demonstrably false.
Matt Latimer is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.