The wreckage of Jeb Bush’s foredoomed campaign has already inspired dozens of articles about the mistakes and miscalculations that led donors, consultants, and Bush himself to believe he had a shot at winning the 2016 race. This genre of journalism reliably offers revealing anecdotes and bitchy anonymous quotes about a campaign’s internal dysfunction. The journalists on Bush’s case, however, seem preoccupied not with behind-the-scenes drama, but with the question of Bush’s soul. Indeed, four reports published in the last four days have emphasized that Bush is “human.” That seems like a trend!
One reporter covering Bush for a major newspaper said that Bush comes off as deeply human. Reporters have felt a sense of poignancy in watching him struggle, something that has been reflected in their coverage. It’s not sympathy, the reporter contended, but rather a simple sense of sadness at watching someone fighting against forces outside his control. Others said Bush simply comes off as a “decent guy.”
I never expected to like Jeb. Boarding school toff. Political scion. Staunch pro-lifer. NRA favorite. Oh, and ugh, the Terri Schiavo stuff. Still, I couldn’t help but warm to him as the campaign wore on. And then even pull for him, a little. It was partly the pathos. Jeb felt somehow more human than other candidates. Vulnerable, struggling, unable to conceal flashes of fear and melancholy.
At the core, what made Jeb compelling to cover was that he was deeply, impossibly human. In a cycle where so many other candidates were able to toggle effortlessly between soaring speeches and masterful debate performances, between well-rehearsed outrage and manufactured indignation, Jeb almost seemed to think aloud in real time, and we got to watch him muddle and bumble through, just like any real person.
If nothing else, Jeb Bush reminded us that we’re all quite helplessly human. He quit the presidential race on Saturday, having spent some $130 million with nothing to show for it but a string of weak primary finishes. The man who some thought was sure to lock up the nomination without even trying served only as a punching bag for Donald Trump and a reminder that it’s possible to feel pity even for scions of the nation’s most powerful political family surrounded by odious warmongers.
What does it mean to call a political candidate “more human” or “impossibly human” in the first place? It’s attached to Bush as a compliment (or, at the very least, an explanation for his weaknesses as a candidate), but none of the outlets or reporters quoted above are ideologically aligned with Bush or his conservative politics. In that sense, “deeply human” could just be a polite way of saying “irredeemably flawed.”
Or perhaps the political journalists covering Jeb Bush really do feel some kind of shared humanity with him, a hidden bond which revealed itself only within the pressure cooker of a presidential campaign. If that’s the case, it’s pretty hard to imagine Bush admitting to seeing things the same way, given his own party’s long-term strategy of relentlessly attacking the media. At the same time, it’s easy to see why journalists would be so eager to recognize the human being behind Bush’s candidacy. The idea that Jeb Bush has something in common with a political reporter at The New York Times probably appeals to the reporter a lot more than it does to Jeb Bush.
It seems possible, too, that Bush’s press shop—considered one of the most useful and responsive operations in this year’s contest—helped engineer the theme of him being uncommonly human as a kind of emergency off-ramp, allowing the candidate to withdraw from the race as smoothly as possible. Considering the inherent power imbalance between a candidate and his or her traveling press corps, and the general unreality of the 2016 race, this scenario doesn’t seem impossible. Then again, such a gambit would likely negate the message it was intended to push. If you need a spokesperson to convince you that Jeb Bush is uniquely human, then you probably aren’t inclined to believe that all by yourself.
So maybe Jeb Bush is indeed human—deeply, impossibly, helplessly, whatever—after all.