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Why Jeb Bush owes it all to Michigan

Yesterday, Jeb Bush announced he was running for the Republican nomination for president. If you had been under the impression that he’s already been running for what seems like several years, that’s because he has.

These days, if you are a candidate, your formal declaration of candidacy is mainly just a fund-raising tool, and you never dream of announcing until you have already raised a few million dollars.

Which means that this is the perfect opportunity for me to announce that I will NOT be a candidate for president in either 2020 or 2024. I am not ready to make a decision about 2028 until I seen how well Bernie Sanders does this year. He is almost the same age now as I will be then, and he doesn’t have any money either.

But back to Jeb Bush, whose real name is John Ellis, by the way. If he asked me, I would have advised him to go back to John Ellis. I can think of only two other famous “Jebs” in American history:

The Confederate general Jeb Stuart, who was a big part of the reason the South lost the Battle of Gettysburg, and his namesake, Jeb Stuart Magruder, a fellow Republican, who went to federal prison for his part in Watergate.

Those aren’t especially good precedents, but never mind. Bush announced his candidacy in Miami, which is fitting and proper because he had been governor of Florida. He also had his mother by his side, which was necessary since she said, a few years ago, that she thought there had been enough Bushes in the White House.

She has since changed her mind, and he hopes America will too. But here’s something you may not know. Jeb Bush should have announced in Michigan, with former Gov. Bill Milliken present.

That’s because without this state and that man, he might never have had a chance. Here’s why. Thirty-five years ago, Jeb’s father, George H.W. Bush was running for president. He started strong, but then started losing primaries to Ronald Reagan.

He was about to become a footnote. But then came Michigan’s primary, and Gov. Bill Milliken decided to do everything he could to try and help Bush. The two men had been classmates at Yale, and Milliken thought they shared a similar moderate set of views.

Milliken was extremely popular then. He campaigned hard for Bush, and Bush beat Reagan here in a landslide. That wasn’t enough to deny Reagan the nomination. But it did make Bush his running mate. George Bush went on to succeed him as president, and to put it in biblical terms, George begat George W. and now Jeb.

A few years ago, I was reminiscing about all this with Gov. Milliken, who later was disillusioned when the first Bush turned to the right. He never was impressed by George W. and though Milliken is still a Republican, he endorsed Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

I reminded the governor of the role he played in 1980, and he agreed that he had assisted at the creation of the Bush dynasty. And then he paused, nodded, and gave me his famous elfin smile. “It’s all my fault,” he said.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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