The Family Business

4 minute read

Back in January, as voters were coming to grips with the reality that Campaign 2016 was upon them, pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group with a bipartisan array of voters in Colorado. No set of 12 people can count as a representative sample of the voting public–but focus groups do help campaigns map the truths and traps of the national mood. So even as the money rolls in and the armies muster on both sides, it poses a challenge to both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton that one voter suggested there be an act of Congress forbidding anyone named Bush or Clinton to run again–and that half the room agreed.

As someone with a long-standing interest in these two political dynasties–particularly their relationships with each other–I admit to feeling challenged as well. On the one hand, at a moment when the U.S. faces sharp choices about our priorities both at home and abroad, a presidential campaign is a chance to debate in depth the problems we face and the solutions that might work. On the other hand, we’ve watched the Bushes and Clintons so closely for so long that the personal is as interesting as the political is important.

And that speaks to a larger truth: the essential qualities of leaders–courage and humility, justice and mercy, the ability to bear unbearable pressure and to hold competing views in one’s head at the same time–can be as key to their success as the plans they bring to the office, because the only certainty in any presidency is the assurance of surprise. George W. Bush envisioned a humble foreign policy; Barack Obama promised a new era of bipartisan comity. Things have a way of not working out the way you’d like.

So character counts. And instinct and temperament. How many of us would deny that family secrets can be the most revealing? The dynamic of this miniature state in our own homes, our sibling rivalries, our marital understandings, our parenting instincts all speak to core values. And while we’ve always been interested in what a candidate’s personal history tells us–Richard Nixon’s Quaker mother, Ronald Reagan’s alcoholic father, the essential fatherlessness of both Bill Clinton and Obama–in the case of these two candidates the legacies are especially relevant.

It’s hard to argue that Hillary’s experience as First Lady, her eight years witnessing the Oval Office from the closest possible vantage point short of occupying it, didn’t shape her understanding of the job. Likewise Jeb’s experience watching from a greater distance, first with his father, then his brother, represents an entry on his résumé unique among candidates in all of American history. This is not to say that Hillary and Jeb aren’t their own woman and man. We know that we can both love people and disagree profoundly with them. Only with these two candidates, we all have larger windows into the worlds that shaped them.

Our cover story this week, by Alex Altman and Zeke J. Miller, explores the experiences that paved Jeb’s path to the Florida governor’s mansion and now potentially to the White House. It comes in a week when the Clintons have encountered their own family issues, which Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer reports on. In weeks to come, on and in the magazine, we will be examining the journeys of other candidates as they settle into the starting blocks. As an editor, I relish the prospect of this race as much for what it tells us about them as for what it tells us about ourselves: What are we looking for, as we encounter new threats in the world, new opportunities at home, a rolling reassessment in light of technologies that are changing everything about the way we live and work and play and engage as citizens? We look forward to hearing from you as our reporters travel around the country, looking out for the next surprise.

Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR


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