Jeb Bush, you may or may not be aware, spent much of his adult life as a "businessman." I put that word in quotes because from what we've learned so far Bush doesn't seem to have risen in the business world the way we normally think of people doing, by creating some kind of product or service that can be sold to people, by managing a growing operation, and so on. Instead, his work, such as it was, consisted of opening doors and making deals, something a succession of partners brought him in to do because of his name.
Which isn't in itself a sin. I'll get to that in a minute, but first, an article in today's Times discusses some of Bush's deals that didn't turn out so well, and how he reacted:
Yet a number of his ventures before he entered politics have invited criticism that Mr. Bush traded on his family's name and crossed ethical lines. His business involvement, as the son of a president, was inevitably vetted in public view, subjecting Mr. Bush to so many questions that he angrily accused the news media of treating him unfairly.
"By definition, every single business transaction I am involved with may give the appearance that I am trading on my name," Mr. Bush wrote in The Wall Street Journal during the final days of his father's re-election campaign in 1992, responding specifically to stories about his involvement with the sale of M.W.I.'s water pumps. "I cannot change who I am."
Months earlier, he had written a 1,400-word defense of his business dealings in The Miami Herald in which he condemned reporters for having "gone too far in delving into the private lives of the families of public figures."
"Being part of America's 'First Family' is both wondrous and challenging," he wrote in the newspaper, adding that he desired to have his successes or failures "measured by his own performance and behavior, not those of his parents."
There isn't necessarily anything wrong with making money the way Bush did. He had a famous name and connections that that name produced, and people were willing to give him large quantities of money to use it to their advantage. Every once in a while we hear of some wealthy heir who gives away all their inheritance and makes a fresh start with nothing, but most of us wouldn't have the guts to do that. Connections and renown were Bush's inheritance, an invaluable currency that could be traded for riches and power. He accepted that inheritance, like most people would.
But what I'd like to know is how Bush himself thinks of his career, and how self-aware he is today. At the 1988 Democratic convention, Jim Hightower said of Jeb's father that he "was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." What does Jeb think he hit?
I'm sure he would like to believe that every dollar he ever made came because of his skills, smarts, and hard work. But it didn't. Like his brother George (who had a similar business career in which people lined up to give him money), Jeb had opportunities that are available to almost no one else in America.
So imagine if he said, "Look, I know that my career has been different from most people's. My grandfather was a senator and my father was the president. Did that ease my way? Of course. It would be ridiculous of me to claim otherwise. But I tried to operate as honestly as I could, work hard, and learn as much as possible in the business world." If Bush said that, he could earn a lot of respect, even from his political opponents.
When he was born, Jeb Bush won the lottery. We don't condemn anyone for winning the lottery, but we do judge what they do afterward. Some people win it, buy a nice house, and then set up a foundation to help other people. Other people win the lottery and blow the whole thing on hookers and cocaine. Bush's history seems to be somewhere in between.
Most of the people Bush is running against in the primaries are the dreaded "career politicians," and those who have made their careers outside of business (Ted Cruz was a lawyer, Rand Paul and Ben Carson were doctors). Since Republican ideology has it that businesspeople are the most noble and heroic among us, it will be tempting for Bush to tout his business experience as a key credential during the primaries. It will also be tempting for his opponents to criticize him as a scion of the elite, particularly since it fits well into the narrative that he's the "establishment" candidate while they're representatives of the grassroots. The question is whether Bush will deny that he's any different from any other successful businessman.