George W. Bush ended years of self-imposed political exile on Monday with a full-throated defense of his brother Jeb, who could face a last stand in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Never mentioning his little brother’s chief tormentor and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump by name, the former president made it clear before a crowd of hundreds of supporters that he considers the brash real estate magnate unfit for the presidency – and his brother ready to serve.
“These are tough times and I understand Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our frustration,” Bush said to cheers. “We need someone who can fix the causes and that’s Jeb Bush.”
Real strength, Bush insisted, isn’t a loud voice and bluster, but “integrity and character.”
Bush’s debut on the campaign trail comes as his brother, the former Florida governor who had sought to run as his “own man” has increasingly leaned on his family despite the risks.
And George W. Bush remains popular in some Republican circles, particularly in South Carolina where Trump tops the polls and where Bush must finish in the top tier Saturday or face pressure to drop out and support one of the other establishment candidates who finish ahead of him.
Jeb Bush, a bit of a policy wonk, ran the risk that he’d look wan in comparison with his gregarious brother. But he thundered through his remarks in a cavernous conference center, clearly energized by his brother’s appearance.
“Who’s done it? Who’s done it?” he shouted at one point, ticking off his accomplishments as Florida governor. “We need a president with a steady hand who runs to the challenge.”
The former president has clearly kept abreast of the raucous 2016 campaign that has rewarded outsiders like Trump at the expense of politicians with experience, like his brother. He argued that the presidency is a high privilege and a job that requires experience and character.
A good fit he suggested, would be someone with executive experience, “for example, someone who served two terms in a large southern state as governor” – as his brother did in Florida.
He sought to make his brother’s less flashy demeanor into a positive, arguing that strength can come from faith and that voters should look for a “faith that reveals itself through good works, not loud words.”
He invoked the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to warn that presidents often face unexpected crises and that it was important to have a president who can handle them “with calm resolve.”
While Jeb Bush also didn’t mention Trump by name, he called it a “little weird” that a Republican front-runner at Saturday’s debate accused the former president of failing to deter the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks and of knowingly using bad information to wage war in Iraq.
“While he was building a reality TV show, I didn’t watch it, but I’m sure it was great, George Bush was building the security apparatus that still keeps us safe,” he said, defending his brother before he launched into his own stump speech.
“If you’re tired of the politics of division, if you want someone with a proven record, a solid conservative … then you’re looking at the nominee,” Bush said, adding that Republicans can only win by campaigning “with arms wide open, with an optimistic message” just as, he said, “George W. did.”
The former president who has kept a low political profile since leaving office clearly relished his return, smiling triumphantly and dishing South Carolina campaign stories. He joked about his post-presidency hobby of oil painting – laughing that the signature “is worth more than the painting.”
The crowd roared its approval as he and former first lady Laura Bush joined what George called his “big-little brother” on stage – the younger brother towering over his shorter, but elder by nine years brother.
Yet interviews with attendees suggest Bush needs more than just a brotherly boost.
Several “W” supporters in the crowd professed ambivalence with Jeb’s candidacy.
“I’m here for W,” said Ron Rash, a Charleston real estate agent, who was sporting a “W” baseball cap and likes the “bold action” Bush took in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He appreciates George speaking on behalf of his brother, but he’s not voting for Jeb Bush. He’s backing Marco Rubio for his “youth and dynamic personality.” Jeb, he says, “hasn’t shown any energy so far.”
He added, “W’s not running, I wish he was.”
Kent Robinson, who owns a Summerville insurance agency, said he also loves and respects the Bush family, but is voting for Ted Cruz.
“It may be a decade too late for Jeb,” he said. “I think the country’s looking for someone a little fresher. It’s not that I don’t like the Bushes, what a family. But everyone knows everything is going to be thrown at them about the ‘Bush dynasty,’ the Iraq War. It’s like Hillary Clinton, they’ve been around forever.”