Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents, can’t escape his family; sometimes he doesn’t even try.
Campaigning at the Iowa State Fair Friday, he fielded a question about whether he takes advice from Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraq war and a top Defense Department official under the administrations of both his father, George H.W. Bush, and his brother George W. Bush.
“This is kind of a tough game for me to be playing, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m my own person.”
The exchange marked the third time this week that Bush has confronted the unpopular war. In a speech earlier in the week to outline his approach to dealing with the Islamic State, a terrorist group that has captured parts of Iraq and Syria, he sought to blame President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for allowing the group to flourish by pulling out troops and leaving Iraq in a “blind haste.”
Fact checkers cited omissions in that speech, including Bush’s failure to note that George W. Bush as president had reached an agreement with the Iraqi government to withdraw all American forces by the end of 2011.
59% How much of the public that believes the Iraq war was a mistake, according to a May Quinnipiac Poll
At a forum in Iowa on Thursday, Jeb Bush again defended key aspects of his brother’s handling of the war, doubling down on accusations that Obama squandered "fragile, but secure" gains that he said his brother had left behind in the country.
Jeb Bush’s family connections have forced him to negotiate a tricky path through a potential political mine field. Nearly two-thirds of the public believes the Iraq war was a mistake, according to a Quinnipiac Poll in May.
But Bush says he’s the first candidate to unveil a detailed response to dealing with the Islamic State. Being a Bush "doesn’t change my views” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Friday.
“I’ve sought the advice of the best people that I could find, that have served in executive, and in Congress, and in think tanks, and all sorts of other places," he said.
Meanwhile, Iowa Republicans have shown an eagerness for someone untethered to Washington or the political system. Real estate mogul Donald Trump, who arrives here Saturday, has topped recent polls, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is also doing well.
Bush, who spent more than two hours in the Iowa heat shaking hands, posing for photographs, admiring tattoos and even downing a mid-morning beer in the “Bud Tent,” was warmly greeted by fairgoers, who recalled his father and brother working the state.
He drew a large, if not always friendly, crowd for his appearance at the Des Moines Register soapbox, where candidates can speak and take questions for 20 minutes, amid a sea of corn dogs and deep fried Twinkie stands. Bush, who has admitted to losing weight on the Paleo diet that bans processed foods and dairy, tried a fried Snickers bar, and praised it as having been “done the right way.”
But just minutes after insisting to reporters that he was a Washington “outsider,” despite his close proximity and access to the highest reaches of political power, Bush drew hecklers who questioned his support for the policies on Iraq and national security pushed by his brother.
Jeb Bush said Wolfowitz was providing “some advice,” but he went on to say, “I get most of my advice from a team that we have in Miami, Fla. Young people.”
He decried “the parlor game that's played, you know, where you have 25, 30, or 40 people that are helping you with foreign policy and if they have any executive experience, they've had to deal with two Republican administrations.”
At a meeting with reporters just before touring the fair’s midway, Bush noted that though he’s low in the polls here, so was his father when he first sought the presidency. George H. W. Bush was barely known in the summer of 1979, but came back to win the Iowa caucus the following January.
“My dad in 1980 was probably an asterisk at this point,” said Bush, who has described himself as the “joyful tortoise” in a race alongside 16 other Republicans.
Asked if he’s enough of an outsider to satisfy a restless voting populace, Bush said he’s not been part of Washington, D.C., even though his father and brother spent 12 years combined in the White House.
“I wouldn’t know how to drive. I can barely get from Dulles (airport) to Sen. Grassley’s office,” he said, as he stood next to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Of Washington, he said: “Never lived there. I’ve been a reform-minded governor.”
Reminded of his lineage, Bush said, “I’ve got that. I’ve got the family thing. I’ve been blessed with a great family.” But, he added, “I’m from Florida. We solve problems there.”
The family question and the war in Iraq has dogged Bush throughout his campaign and his visit to Iowa. But he has largely stuck by his brother, arguing that when he left office in 2009, Iraq was “fragile, but secure." He boasts how toppling Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein was a good decision.
He has accused the Obama administration of squandering what his brother accomplished in Iraq and said of battling the Islamic State “the Iraqis want our help. They want to know that we have skin in the game, that we're committed to this.”
He was interrupted by a heckler reminding him of his brother’s role in setting a timeline for U.S. troops to leave Iraq at the close of 2011.
“We didn't have to get out in 2011,” Bush retorted, a contention that Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, contradicted this week when he said that the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was the Bush administration’s plan all along.
Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark, firstname.lastname@example.org