George P. Bush: Can He Resurrect the Bush Brand?
In 1993, when his father launched his first bid for Florida governor, Bush, who was then 17, and his two younger siblings found themselves suddenly in the limelight. But the happy and well-coiffed image that the extended Bush family had always projected felt out of step with reality.
That reality included the fact that Bush’s 16-year-old sister, Noelle, had been using progressively harsher drugs since middle school, and that Bush himself was struggling academically in his first semester at Rice University. It also included an episode that New Year’s Eve in which a shirtless Bush tried to break into an ex-girlfriend’s home. Caught in the act by her father, according to the resulting police report, he fled—but came back 20 minutes later with his car, in which he proceeded to do donuts across her 80-foot lawn. The family declined to press charges. “I think that any kid growing up wants to define themselves,” Bush says of those days. “Emotionally, I wasn’t mature.”
He said he “grew into a man” after his fitful first years of college. “I started to take life a little bit more seriously and started to think about other people instead of just myself.” He worked his way onto the honor roll and recommitted himself to his Catholic faith. And over steak dinners at Morton’s and Tex-Mex at Molina’s in Houston, he began asking his grandparents about politics.
Barbara Bush told him what she had told every member of her brood who was considering elected office: Experience life—and make your own mark, independent of your father’s—before you try to represent the lives of others.
So he did. After graduating from Rice, he taught history at a public school in Florida. He attended law school in Texas, then stayed in the state to practice corporate law. He got married and had two children. He ran a real-estate private-equity firm. He joined the Navy, and served more than a year in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. Bush found his career path at once fulfilling and blessedly under the radar. Even his race for land commissioner, which he won handily, made few headlines.
Nonetheless, a political profile was taking shape. Bush was an ideal avatar for the kind of voter the party, in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, hoped to recruit—young, pragmatic, nonwhite, fluent in Spanish. He was also likable. “He’s a warm, relaxed guy,” says Will Hurd, a Republican who represents a congressional district in southwestern Texas. “It’s actually quite rare. And if people don’t like you, they’re not going to listen to you.”
Not that everyone liked Bush. Soon after starting the job, he became the target of some of the far-right voters his party hoped he might counterbalance. As land commissioner, he announced a full-scale renovation of the Alamo. The project might have inflamed tensions whoever was in charge—we’re talking about Texas and, well, the Alamo. But when Bush called for moving the monument honoring those who died in battle closer to their graves, he met with blowback from right-wing critics who (invoking the removal of Confederate monuments) accused him of meddling with history. Observers I spoke with, including Democrats, were impressed that Bush held firm and managed to trounce a primary challenger at the same time. “It’s not just the Bush name—there’s something more in him,” says Mustafa Tameez, a top Democratic consultant in Texas. Indeed, he added, “a Bush name in the primary is not the best thing.”