September 22, 2017
By Dave DeLand, Photos by Tommy O'Laughlin '13
It wasn’t all that long ago when he seemed destined for the presidency, although Jeb Bush doesn’t spend much time these days dwelling on what might have been.
“What you do is dust yourself off and get on with life,” Bush said Thursday during a press conference at Saint John’s University’s Abbey Chapter House.
“I gave it my all when I ran for president, but I lost,” the 64-year-old Bush said. “I’m a big boy. It can’t be an obsession.”
Instead, the former Florida governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate has refocused his life in the best way he can think of — by advocating for nationwide educational reforms, and by sharing his vision for a more collaborative climate in American politics.
“Challenge yourself to get outside your comfort zone and listen to people who don’t agree with you,” said Bush, who spent Thursday afternoon meeting with students, faculty and alumnae/i on the SJU campus before a receptive crowd packed the Abbey and University Church to hear his evening interview with Minnesota Public Radio’s Gary Eichten ’69.
“There’s this notion you read about how conservatives aren’t allowed on (college) campuses any more, which I find remarkable,” Bush said. “I actually haven’t had a tomato thrown at me.”
The interview was part of the 11th annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture series, presented by the McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement – appropriately so, because engagement is a primary Bush area of emphasis.
“This lecture series has a theme of conscience and courage in public life,” said College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s political science professor Matt Lindstrom '92, director of the McCarthy Center. “Gov. Bush was never afraid to ask the question, ‘Why not?’”
“Saint John’s is a place for those conversations to take place,” said SJU President Michael Hemesath ‘81, “and we’re delighted to have those conversations taking place this evening.”
In the contentious realm of American politics, Bush welcomes them.
“We live in this hyper-partisan environment where bad behavior is accepted in one party because you’re part of that tribe and not in the other,” he said.
“Calling out people in your own party who say outrageous things or do things that are inappropriate ought to be part of the engagement. They should be held to a higher standard.”
Bush advocates instead for the politics of coalition and compromise, qualities that in Washington, D.C., are often perceived as weakness.
“There’s such fear of actually agreeing with someone who you may not agree with on 80 percent of the rest of the deal,” said Bush, who suspended his presidential campaign Feb. 20, 2016. “That’s not compromising your principles. That’s actually being effective.
“If you have a chance to find someone who doesn’t think like you but agrees with you on a particular subject, the requirement ought to be you pause, take a deep breath and embrace that person and form a coalition to get something done.”
Bush and Eichten discussed a wide array of topics, ranging from presidential elections to global climate change, chaotic leadership to North Korea’s nuclear threat, DACA to Russian election tampering to healthcare reform.
With all those subjects, Bush advocates a common cooperative thread.
“We’ve lost the ability to forge consensus on easy things,” Bush said. “We need to get back to what America does well. We’re a bottom-up country.”
He also advocates a faith-based approach when addressing political problems.
“It should be one of the most important parts of how you go about your business,” said Bush, Florida’s governor from 1999-2007. “Those are core beliefs that come from the teachings of Christ.”
Bush says he has no more political aspirations, at least not presently.
“It isn’t going to be running for governor,” he said, “and I would be like a caged animal in the Senate where they talk a lot. It’s not like it was when Sen. McCarthy was there and they actually did a lot of things.”
Still, Bush had one last bit of politician left in him Thursday night as he stood to leave the stage: He waved the same red towel emblazoned with the Johnnie Rat that Saint John’s supporters will be waving Saturday at Target Field when the Johnnies’ football team plays St. Thomas.
“I think if we re-focus our efforts from the bottom up,” he said, “it’s not as bad.”