George Bush At 91: Irritated and Invigorated by ’16 Race

George and Barbara Bush, in Houston on Oct. 11, were introduced ahead of Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals.
George and Barbara Bush, in Houston on Oct. 11, were introduced ahead of Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals.
He has given up his “C.S.I.” reruns, consuming campaign coverage on Fox News — intently but fretfully — when he is perched in front of the television in his Houston home.

He reads three print newspapers daily, dials into briefings given by advisers to his son Jeb’s presidential campaign and stays up late to watch prime-time debates — after sitting through the so-called undercard, too.

Former President George Bush, 91 and frail, is straining to understand an election season that has, for his son and the Republican Party, lurched sharply and stunningly off script. And he is often bewildered by what he sees.

“I’m getting old,” he tells friends, appraising today’s politics, “at just the right time.”

These are confounding days for the Bush family and the network of advisers, donors and supporters who have helped sustain a political dynasty that began with the Senate victory by Prescott Bush, the older Mr. Bush’s father, in Connecticut 63 years ago. They have watched the rise of Donald J. Trump with alarm, and seen how Jeb Bush, the onetime Florida governor, has languished despite early advantages of political pedigree and campaign money.

On Friday, the Bush campaign said it was slashing staff salaries and positions after disappointing polls and lackluster debate performances, a recognition that a vast operation built when Mr. Bush was leading the pack early this year cannot be maintained.

No one, it seems, is more perplexed than the family patriarch by the race, and by what the Republican Party has become in its embrace of anti-establishment outsiders, especially the sometimes rude Mr. Trump.

In July, even after breaking a vertebra in a fall that left him hospitalized in Maine, the elder Mr. Bush was fuming at the news of the day: Mr. Trump had belittled Sen. John McCain of Arizona for being taken prisoner in Vietnam.

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“I can’t understand how somebody could say that and still be taken seriously,” said Mr. Bush, himself a naval aviator in World War II, according to his longtime spokesman, Jim McGrath, who had visited him.

This weekend, generations of Bush loyalists planned to descend on a Houston hotel for a gathering for Jeb Bush’s campaign, featuring both the 41st and 43rd presidents. Strategists were eager to reassure them and highlight the campaign’s relative organizational strength, fund-raising capacity and ability to endure a delegate battle that could last well into spring.

But those who have long been in the Bush family orbit are also being forced to reckon with a party that seems to be moving on from them.

“I have no feeling for the electorate anymore,” said John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who helped the elder Mr. Bush win the 1988 primary there and went on to serve as his White House chief of staff. “It is not responding the way it used to. Their priorities are so different that if I tried to analyze it I’d be making it up.”

Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, with his father, former President George H. W. Bush, during a news conference in Boca Grande in 2006.
Mr. Sununu, like many establishment-aligned Republicans, is especially mystified by Mr. Trump’s appeal. “He supports single-payer federal health care and he loves eminent domain, and the Tea Party hates both of those things,” he said. “So explain to me how people are voting on issues.”

Contempt for Mr. Trump runs deep in the clan. Two people interviewed, who are in direct communication with the elder Mr. Bush but requested anonymity to avoid betraying a confidence, said Mr. Trump had revived painful memories among the Bushes of another blunt populist: H. Ross Perot. The family has long believed Mr. Perot’s third-party candidacy helped Bill Clinton capture the White House from Mr. Bush in 1992.

Jeb Bush’s brother Neil has also vented privately about how bad Mr. Trump is for the country, say people who have spoken to him but did not want to be quoted revealing private conversations.

And their father has been highly irritated by Mr. Trump’s ridicule. The former reality TV star has in recent weeks taunted both former President George W. Bush and Jeb over the Sept 11 attacks.

“He is throwing shoes at the TV when his son gets attacked and insulted by our favorite candidate,” Jeb Bush joked, referring to his father and Mr. Trump, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.

“They’re all challenged by what’s going on,” Andrew Card said about the Bush family, referring to the “roller-coaster ride” of a campaign.

But Mr. Card, who served key roles in both Bush administrations and was with members of the family last week for a Points of Light foundation celebration, said that though the current race had not gone as planned, it had been a boon for the first President Bush. “It’s keeping him young,” Mr. Card said.

Jeb Bush echoed that statement, calling the campaign rejuvenating for his father. And the elder Mr. Bush has long had a particular attachment to Jeb and his aspirations, once publicly weeping as he recalled his son’s grace in defeat during a 1994 run for governor.

Barbara Bush, 90, likes to tease her husband about how obsessive he has become about the election. She will often pick up a book or turn to her knitting as the former president absorbs the political chatter on cable television, while the two sit side by side in their Houston home’s graceful library. Still, she is doing her part: She has affixed a “Jeb!” sticker to her walker, and when people remark on it, she reaches into a stash of stickers she carries. During a brunch last year with Dave Carney, an old Bush hand from New Hampshire, she spent 20 minutes grilling him about her son’s prospects in this first primary state.

Her husband has had to forgo some of his cherished activities. He can no longer jot the handwritten notes that were such a part of his identity for so long. His speech is now more labored and he cannot send many emails, but he still talks frequently on the phone with his candidate son, especially after major events like debates or speeches.

“He is not much in the advice business these days, but he is sure interested in what is going on,” Jeb Bush wrote in an email to The New York Times. “The only advice he gives is to go win. And that is what I intend to do.”

The former governor’s campaign has struggled amid steeper-than-expected competition for establishment-leaning Republican donors and an inability to harness the kind of passion powering rivals like Mr. Trump. His aides are now promising a wide-scale shift, with staffing levels at the campaign’s Miami headquarters reduced sharply. There have been pledges that the candidate will spend more time in front of voters in early states, particularly New Hampshire.

The Houston donor retreat is the second time this year that Bush supporters have gathered with the elder Bushes. Over the summer, the family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Me., was the site of a similar event. Attendees there thought they would get only a glimpse at Mr. and Mrs. Bush, who spend the summer in Maine, at a reception in their seaside home. But then both showed up for a detailed political briefing held for the donors, receiving a standing ovation.

The couple are still particularly active. Mr. Bush, who uses a wheelchair, and Mrs. Bush joined more than 100,000 other fans at the Alabama-Texas A & M football game last weekend and then were out in Houston for five consecutive nights this week. They are expected to attend at least three events next month involving Mr. Bush’s library and foundation in College Station, Tex., including a forum dedicated to the release of Jon Meacham’s biography of the 41st president, the first major work on his life.

More is at stake in this race than Jeb Bush’s political career, friends of the family say. The Bush name has been prominent in national politics for three decades, and a rejection of the younger son by the electorate, especially in the primary, could be deeply wounding to a family proud of its role in American history.

But the Bushes do not talk much about losing.

George W. Bush, who has become a regular on the fund-raising circuit for his younger brother, tells audiences that he and his father have developed a routine. The elder Bush asks his son, “When is the inauguration?” George W. Bush reminds him that it is January of 2017.

“I’ll be there,” the father replies.

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