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Jeb Bush’s politics of joy

Jeb Bush has said one of his criteria for a 2016 presidential run is “Can I do it joyfully?”getty images

Running for president is no easy decision, full of worries about family, money, and rubber-chicken dinners. For Jeb Bush, there are other considerations as well: Is America ready for its first three-fer? Will voters elect a man whose first name is an acronym? (Jeb stands for “John Ellis Bush.”) And then this one, straight from the candidate himself: “Can I do it joyfully?”

Best of luck with that.

It’s an odd coupling of the two words. Politics and joy? Sounds like alcohol and automobiles or orange juice and toothpaste. They’re possible to mix, of course, but beware.

I get what Bush is trying to do. Partly he is reacting to the Republican travails of four years ago. Those primaries were notable for their viciousness. It was evident to most observers that Mitt Romney would ultimately win. Nevertheless, several GOP candidates launched scorched-earth attacks on him, notably Newt Gingrich who (bizarrely for a free-market conservative) described Romney’s work as “vulture capital.” The eventual nominee entered the general election severely weakened. Bush, the most Romney-esque of the field (in that he’s relatively more centrist) is sending a warning shot across the bow: This time around, play nice.


Then too, Bush seems to have a good political ear. Politics has become increasingly partisan and unpleasant in Washington, and Americans wish it were otherwise. By large majorities, voters describe the federal government as “broken.” Bush, a self-styled problem solver, wants to project an image as someone who is free from the muck.

And, of course, he may actually believe it. A joyous politics is one that speaks to people’s better side. It’s one conducted on positive and not negative terms. It’s one that attempts to transcend divisions and bridge differences.

But it doesn’t always work.

The antecedent to joyous politics is William Wordsworth’s poem “The Character of the Happy Warrior,” which describes the many virtues of the joyful leader, from keeping the law to self-sacrifice to an unerring focus on “high endeavors.” In American politics the “happy warrior” moniker has been applied to an affable few, including Alfred E. Smith (by Franklin Roosevelt in 1924), Joe Biden (by Barack Obama in 2012) and, most notably, to the cheerful Hubert Humphrey, senator from Minnesota, vice president under Lyndon Johnson and Democratic nominee in 1968.


But joyful politicians aren’t the same as joyful politics, as Humphrey’s story illustrates.

Humphrey kicked off his run for president in late April 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and in the midst of enormous turmoil over the Vietnam War. In direct reference to the grimness of those times, he called for a campaign grounded in “the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy.” It was not to be.

The sitting vice president was widely jeered, tagged with the same pro-war brush as the administration. The two anti-war candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, presented themselves as stark contrasts; Kennedy’s assassination in June cast a pall over the race for the nomination. In late August, the Democrats had their rancorous national convention in Chicago. The images beamed out to viewers around the country weren’t pretty. While party insiders handed Humphrey the nomination inside the hall, outside demonstrators and police clashed violently, alienating voters and ultimately swinging support to the GOP’s Richard Nixon.

Oh, joy.

If “joyful” to Jeb Bush is simply about temperament, then he may well be able to remain upbeat and smiling even as his opponents savage him and the primaries grind on. But if “joyful” means something different — a new and more aspirational politics — it’ll be hard to maintain during the upcoming campaign.

The grassroots, particularly within the GOP, are a surly bunch, filled with naysaying: no to Obamacare, no to gay marriage, no to new immigrants, no to choice, no to taxes and no to government in general. Keeping a positive message in the midst of that will be difficult. Indeed, successful politicking almost requires tearing down your foes even as you build yourself up. Bush may well have some joyful days, but — like Humphrey — he more likely will find them filled with acrimony.


Tom Keane can be reached at