On Presidents Day, Jeb Bush urges return to civility in politics

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Jeb Bush speaks at a forum in Oak Brook, Wednesday April 18, 2018. - James C. Svehla/Chicago Tribune/TNS

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told a Presidents Day audience of investors and money managers that it’s time for a return to civility in the nation’s politics. And the man who was ousted early from the Republican primaries of 2016 gave a decidedly mixed review of the first term of President Donald Trump, who bruised him often on the campaign trail.

Bush spoke Monday to an audience of several hundred investors in Hollywood at a conference sponsored by the financial firm Noble Capital Markets of Boca Raton. During the speech and onstage interview with author Brant Pinvidic, Bush likened the role of the president to part prime minister, part king.

He gave Trump good grades on the ministerial side, applauding the appointments of conservative jurists Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh as justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the strong economy, low unemployment and a reduction in government regulation. “There are a lot of good things going on,” he said.

The nation, though, still faces serious financial problems, said the two-term former Republican governor.

“We have trillion-dollar deficits in a growing economy,” he said. “We never envisioned that,” along with unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities that will have to be resolved by others.

“These things are left to be tended to by somebody else and I think that’s malpractice.”

As for such “kingly” duties as setting an example to which younger people can aspire, Bush found the president deficient.

“The duties say if you can work hard and play by the rules you can be just like him … that’s an ‘F,’” Bush said. “That’s an important part of this, to be admired by someone that you look up to. This president doesn’t achieve that.”

Bush, whom Trump once called an “a------” and “Sleepy Jeb” on the campaign trail, was asked whether he could have won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination given all that he knows now.

“Trump is a master of reality TV and I give him credit … he knows how to do this,” Bush replied. “He knows how to keep the attention on him. This is not part of my DNA. I was like a fish out of water.”

But could he have won the nomination? Pinvidic asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Bush said before joking: “I probably could have knee-capped the guy.”

He said he has no ambitions of running for president in 2024. Since 2016, he has stuck mainly with business endeavors. In 2017, he was named as a director of a communications tower company and was reported as a potential investor in the Miami Marlins, which did not come to pass.

Bush told his audience there is a need for leaders to place principle over personal preferences. He said the United States achieved its global leadership role largely because many presidents did just that.

“They’re willing to undertake risk for a cause greater than themselves,” Bush said.

Among the examples:

— George Washington, despite intense domestic political pressure to go to war against Britain in 1795 over neutrality violations in the Caribbean, opted for a treaty that spared a nascent nation from hostilities.

— Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. “Lincoln did what he thought was right even though it wasn’t popular,” Bush said. “He was denigrated. He was despised in many ways.”

— George H.W. Bush, he said, could have claimed credit when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Instead, he stepped back and let the German people celebrate the accomplishment, he said of his father.

In the end, Bush said, political opponents can be admired even though they reside on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

“Don’t we all have friends that are crazy politically?” he asked. “But you have a brother or a sister that’s different than you ideologically, and you still love ’em right? So why can’t we translate that to a broader context?”

He noted that his older brother, former President George W. Bush maintains a friendly relationship with former first lady Michelle Obama, a relationship that is similar to the one his late father had with former President Bill Clinton.

“My brother has lived a pretty purposeful life post-presidency,” Bush said. “He is comfortable in his own skin and he is as funny as all get out. He is disarming.”

And of former President Jimmy Carter, he said, “God bless him — 95 years old and is still building homes. I didn’t agree with his policies, but I admired him greatly.”

Bush said he doesn’t expect favorable responses from those who hear him speak well of his political adversaries.

“You ought to see the responses from my 1.3 million followers on Twitter,” he said. “Half of them are probably Russian bots and the other half hates my guts.”

He read aloud from a letter his late father left Clinton in the Oval Office after the Democrat defeated him in the 1992 election.

“That was hard,” Jeb Bush said of his father’s loss. “He liked to win.”

Yet, the outgoing president offered nothing but good wishes to his former opponent.

“I wish you great happiness here,” the senior Bush wrote. “I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.”

He added that Clinton’s success “is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

“Good luck,” concluded the former president.

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