The Bush boys: No sibling rivalry, but maybe something deeper

May 21, 2015
US President Bush bids farewell to his brother in Tampa

President George W. Bush (R) bids farewell to his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, as they step off Marine One at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, May 9, 2006. REUTERS/Jason Reed

When Jeb Bush launched his exploratory campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination earlier this year, he declared “I am my own man.” The former Florida governor said he was very different from both his father, President George H.W. Bush, and his older brother, President George W. Bush — though he made a point of adding, “I love my father and my brother.”

Last week, however, Jeb Bush undermined his declaration of independence when he took four days to answer a question: Would he have invaded Iraq, as did his brother, knowing what we know now? In answering, Bush seemed to mishear the question, since he appeared more focused on what he wanted to tell his family than on what he wanted to tell the American public.

“Yes,” he declared, he would have invaded Iraq based on the intelligence information at the time — and so would have Hillary Clinton. Over the week, it took Bush three more tries, with three different excuses, to clarify this and say “no.”

US President George W. Bush talks to Florida Governor Jeb Bush at election rally in Orlando.


President George W. Bush (L) confers with his brother, Florida Govovernor Jeb Bush, at a campaign election rally in Orlando, Florida, October 30, 2004. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Bush’s answer was puzzling and unsettling to many voters because a large majority of Americans now view the war in Iraq as a serious blunder. He seemed reluctant to disagree with his older brother. This triggered widespread armchair (psychological)  speculation about whether he was capable of clearly seeing events beyond the “filter” of his brother.

Many political analysts wondered if Bush’s confusing responses were due to sibling rivalry. But it sounds more likely that he has difficulty separating from his family. Something has made it hard for him to have his own voice.

Though Bush, and the entire Bush family, regularly dismiss analysis of family dynamics as “psychobabble,” an examination could prove helpful.

There is relatively little evidence of sibling rivalry in Bush’s convoluted series of answers to the question about going to war in Iraq. If it had played a significant part in his self-destructive political alignment with his older brother, we would probably have seen indications of hostility toward his brother. That is not the case.

Nonetheless, one can still hypothesize that if there had been unconscious sibling rivalry, Bush would have avoided expressing any aggressive, competitive feelings and masked any hostility. Instead, he would have strongly agreed with the invasion. But without any suggestion of recent dissension between the brothers, this is a highly speculative stretch.

GEORGE W. BUSH WITH BROTHER JEB IN FLORIDA.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush (L) shakes hands with his brother, President George W. Bush, at the Read-Patillo Elementary School in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, October 17, 2002. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Other aspects of sibling rivalry are also absent. True, Jeb once bragged he was a better reader than his older brother George. But this is scant evidence for deep sibling rivalry. The brothers also are reportedly emotionally distant because they have little social interaction and don’t regularly confide in each other.

One reason so many political analysts cite sibling rivalry to be at work, however, is that Jeb Bush was the brother long viewed as presidential material, which Bush family members have acknowleged. Though George was seven years older, he was usually described as less serious and more impulsive. He was often considered the political enforcer when his father was president; his younger bother advised on policy. But when George won the Texas governorship, and Jeb lost his first gubernatioral race in Florida that same year, the family tide reputedly turned toward supporting George for the presidency. Since then, Jeb has largely existed in his brother’s shadow.

New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, for one, has helped bolster the sibling- rivalry theory. She wrote on Sunday that Jeb has “voluntarily shackled himself to W.”  But this seemed clear to her in 1993, when she interviewed Jeb during his first run for Florida governor. “He seemed mildly annoyed,” Dowd wrote, “that his raffish older brother had jumped into the arena to run for governor in Texas. W. was co-opting Jeb’s campaign lines and making it … ‘a People magazine story’…”

But if sibling rivalry is unlikely, there is convincing evidence of Jeb’s internal conflict between his desire to become “his own man” and his fear of separating from and antagonizing his family, especially the brother he idealized as a child. This dynamic may be even more conflicted because Jeb’s personal history demonstrates that he has already strongly differentiated himself from his family to become his own man.

He married a Mexican woman whose father had been a waiter and migrant worker, for example, not a society debutant. He became fluent in Spanish and converted to Catholicism. His policies as Florida governor were far closer to conservative than moderate. He also made Florida his home rather than the family favorites, Maine and Texas.

Former President Bush, President Bush and Governor Bush depart the christening ceremony of the USS George H.W. Bush in Virginia

Former President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, and Governor Jeb Bush after the christening ceremony of the USS George H.W. Bush in Newport News, Virginia, October 7, 2006. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Separating from your family is part of growing up. You go from extreme dependency as a baby and throughout childhood to the independence of adulthood. Teenage acts of rebellion, when adolescents can disagree with virtually everything parents say and stand for — is part of this transition. The turbulance of adolescence reflects the internal conflict between a teen’s desire to remain a child and the desire to separate and become his or her own person. It culminates in a break that enables teenagers to form separate identities.

As teenagers reject their parents and their values, they create the internal space to develop their own opinions, tastes, ideals and goals. Though they may retain many aspects of their parents’ views and values, they develop their own distictive framework for them. They create who they are in the world.

Mark Twain described this transition. “When I was a boy of 14,” he wrote, “my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

But it could be that, in striving to step into the presidential shoes of his long-idealized older brother and his even more idealized father, Jeb somehow regressed and lost confidence in himself.

Children with powerful family members are frequently filled with self-doubt. They can feel like failures when comparing themselves to older siblings and parental figures. They might experience normal manifestations of separation or individuation — including adolescent rebellion or just the act of forming their own opinions — as if they are attacking or even killing their family members. Understandably, this causes them not just guilt but a growing fear of alienating their family.

Clinging to family love through idealization is a defensive reaction against aggressive feelings from separation and individuation. Most adolescents resolve this conflict as they realize they are merely killing off their family’s controlling influence over them — not their actual family members.

If these are the pychodynamics that caused Jeb to flounder this past week, his major challenge is if and how quickly he can work through them. He has to fully recover a mind of his own — and convince the American public that he is not George W. Bush II.

9 comments

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Yes deeper……… International Bank of Transfers.

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

im sure the dinasty’s goals will not be too disrupted by these skirmishes, but maybe the voters will get tricked into thinking that there is actually an individual mind behind this candidacy, and not the legacy of texas oil

Posted by diegoorlandi | Report as abusive

yep, sounds like that psychobabble you mentioned.

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

3 trillion taxpayer dollars. 4,000 American service members killed. To give ISIS a new home in Iraq.

The Bush family legacy is a legacy of failure and governmental over-reach.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“If you knew in 2003, what we know now…. would you have invaded Iraq?”

Bush: “Yes. No. Maybe. This is so hard. Wait. What do we know now? Support our troops. 9/11. Amurca.”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Shorter W: Presidentin’ is hard work!

Shorter Jebby: Campaignidentin’ is hard work!

Posted by Harry_R_Sohl | Report as abusive

Jeb,along with Cheney and Rumsfield were PNAC’ers. There’s no competition.
Your quasi intellectual psychobabble Peter is the purest of BS. You haven’t a clue.

Posted by Corkeyta | Report as abusive

Jeb, don’t worry, Dubya has already proven that he is not presidential material.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

2 out of 2 Bush presidents so far, started wars and ultimately did us no good at all. Why would we, in any way, want to vote for another expensive failure like that?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive