Parker: Jeb has to learn not to take the bait
WASHINGTON — It might be time for Katie Couric to ask Jeb Bush what he reads.
Not this column, obviously, where last May I sagely, if humbly, urged him to hug and then walk away from his brother, to whom he should refer to as President George W. Bush.
He can't seem to stop talking about the sibling who beat him to the White House. At least Jeb hasn't figured out how to talk about him without becoming enmeshed in a web from which he seems unable to escape.
One is tempted to suggest that Mother Bush knew of what she spoke when she said about Jeb's possible run, "We've had enough Bushes." A mother knows her boys best, and Barbara Bush may have feared that her second son might be too sensitive for the job.
The man's greatest flaw is his finest quality — he's all heart. Standing alongside Donald Trump in debates, he seems almost innocent. Guileless. He's also loyal to the bone — and don't think Trump hasn't noticed.
If there's anything the megalomaniacal mogul recognizes, other than his own fabulosity, it's an opponent's vulnerability. He has a predator's instinct for old injuries, the better to maximize the crippling effect of a well-aimed dart. He fires with such shrugging nonchalance that it's easy — and wrong — to assume that, hey, he's just sayin'. Every message Trump delivers is ruthlessly crafted and intended to be psychologically devastating.
Thus, when he recently went after Bush 43's Iraq War record and the attacks of 9/11, he was plainly baiting Jeb. Plainly, that is, to everyone but Jeb, who grabbed the hook and practically leapt in the boat.
This all began during the second GOP debate when Trump remarked that George W. Bush was to blame for Barack Obama's victory "because it (Iraq) was such a disaster those last three months that Abraham Lincoln couldn't have been elected."
Deleteriously polite and defensive, Bush was already on auto-react: "You know what?" he said. "As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe."
Jeb, Jeb, Jeb. Couldn't you see it was a dare? Didn't your mother tell you to ignore bullies? It infuriates them!
Would that Bush had simply turned to the camera and, rolling his eyes, said, "There he goes again." (It's worked before.)
Trump's thin skin would have flushed crimson as it usually does when he's rebuked. Instead, Trump got under Bush's skin — and he was just warming up.
Next came a Bloomberg News interview during which Trump insinuated that George W. Bush was to blame for 9/11. He probably doesn't believe this, but the anticipation of Jeb's likely reaction must have been irresistible.
"He was president, OK?" Trump said. "Blame him, or don't blame him, but he was president."
Bingo. Ever the faithful Sherpa to his brother and his baggage, Jeb didn't exactly take it like a man and, well, he tweeted. Trump's remark was "pathetic," he wrote. No, Trump tweeted back, "you're pathetic." To borrow from those two, the entire exchange was pathetic.
Then it got worse.
On Sunday's "State of the Union," CNN's Jake Tapper asked Bush the inevitable: "If your brother and his administration bear no responsibility at all, how do you then make the jump that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are responsible for what happened at Benghazi?"
Well, there you go.
What started as a debate taunt escalated into a Twitter war that has become a quagmire of Bush's own making. Trump, meanwhile, has triumphed by making Bush look weak and virtually complicit in his brother's war. Tapper further forced Bush to elaborate on an unwinnable position, while essentially setting up a plausible exit for Hillary Clinton just days before her scheduled Benghazi testimony.
One both admires and pities Bush, who surely deserves a worthier adversary than Trump. Once upon a time, it was assumed he'd eventually have one in Clinton, who continues to benefit from Republican infighting.
For what it's worth, a few more words of advice: Before next week's debate, Bush should study Clinton's debate performance, especially when she was asked if she wanted to respond to an opponent's charge against her. Affecting boredom, she won the day with one syllable: "No."
And note: No one challenges Hillary about Bill's actions as president. It's history — and so is your brother.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.