The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Jeb Bush's Solution for America: Public Shaming and a 'Sense of Ridicule'

The candidate who was supposed to be the GOP's safe choice now has to answer questions about a 1995 book where he rambled on about how much he disliked divorce and "victims movements."

by Kevin Lincoln
Jun 12 2015, 4:00am

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Until recently, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush looked like the Republican Establishment's ace-in-the-hole choice for its 2016 presidential nomination—a throwback to the party pre–Tea Party heyday, when conservatives still believed in things like wiretaps and public schools and Sarah Palin was just a folksy babe from Alaska. Should the other lesser-known 2016 tryhards prove to be nothing more than the controversies they generated, the Republican Establishment would still have Jeb in the wings, safe in the knowledge that he has the name-recognition and political chops to be trotted out against Hillary Clinton at any time.

But with just a few days to go before Bush officially kicks off his campaign, the idea that he is the obvious Not Crazy Option for the GOP seems to have faded. A Washington Post headline announced Thursday that Bush's "Campaign Ran Off Course Before It Even Began." And a close reading of Bush's 1995 book Profiles in Character reveals that he's not quite the cozy centrist everyone seemed to think he was. Like an episode of Veep—in fact, there's an episode of Veep just like this—Bush now must answer for the strange things he and his co-writer put down way back when, including, as the Huffington Post's Laura Bassett pointed out, support for the idea of publicly shaming unwed mothers in the interest of public morality. You know, like they did in the Scarlet Letter.

"Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots," Bush wrote, in a chapter called "The Restoration of Shame," which, among other things argues that a "sense of ridicule" would shame unmarried women into keeping their legs crossed.

Astonishingly, Bush has stood by that idea this week, telling reporters in Poland Thursday that being a single mom "hurts the prospects, limits the possibilities of young people being able to live lives of purpose and meaning," and defending his support of Florida's so-called Scarlet Letter Law, which, unbelievably, required single mothers who did not know their child's paternity to publish their sexual histories in the newspapers before putting the baby up for adoption. (The law has since been repealed.)

Bush also encouraged people to read the book. So we did. And unwed-mother shaming isn't the only alarming thing in there.

Let's start with his thoughts on divorce, a word that appears approximately 20 times in in Profiles in Character . Bush's general thesis is that divorce is one of a litany of social problems, including, as he lists on page 25, "out of wedlock births, domestic violence, material gratification, and excessive litigation," causing our "social structure [to buckle]."

Putting out of wedlock births in the same category as domestic violence—and excessive litigation?—is pretty weird, but it's hardly the first time a conservative politician's made that comparison. But things quickly devolve from there.

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"Since 1960, the total number of divorces have increased by 322 percent. And since 1966, the number of children in Florida relying on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits, the primary component of welfare, has jumped 333 percent," Bush writes. A few pages later, he adds:

During this time, government has assumed more and more responsibility for the welfare of our children and families. Social legislation in this area has included welfare, no-fault divorce, child protective services, the juvenile justice system, centralized education, government programs for child support, foster care and adoption. Yet the institutions that have evolved from this social legislation have presided over an increasing number of divorces and out of wedlock births. They have watched as AFDC benefits have become an attractive alternative to marriage.

To sum up, Bush is arguing here that welfare has become an "attractive alternative to marriage," and that, as a result, the moral and economic fabric of society is eroding. This sets up a very strange approach toward divorce, which Bush lays out a little later:

In the 1970s, the no-fault divorce reform movement swept through the country. No-fault divorce abolished defenses to divorce and liberalized the grounds for dissolution of a marriage. But no-fault divorce quickly became a tool for those who used the law not to escape physical or mental cruelty but to pursue career dreams and trade in their wives for something more appealing.

So in Jeb Bush's world, people opt out of marriage to either a) pursue welfare benefits, or b) chase career dreams. Clearly, these two motivations are diametrically opposed, which speaks to a broader inconsistency that seems to pervade Bush's thinking about society and social structures. On the one hand, government is coddling and grotesque, spoiling citizens into sin and waste; on the other, people keep falling victim to their own desires and greed, and need government policy to protect them. Despite occasional lip service, issues like domestic violence and marital unhappiness are treated mostly as afterthoughts. And later, on page 106, Bush takes the concept to its extreme, blaming separation and divorce for rising rates of teen suicide.

Elsewhere in the book, Bush carries over his issues with "no fault" judgment into his consideration of criminal justice, turning the argument previously used to harangue divorcees on to America's enfeebled court system.

"No fault is a concept that has also permeated our criminal justice system," he writes. "Over the last three decades, the courts have permitted a number of no-fault defenses, such as insanity and sexual abuse, raised in the trial of the Menendez brothers. Now any criminal defendant can arm himself with an excuse from his past to exonerate a crime."

The idea that "any criminal defendant" would have a readymade excuse at hand seems to sharply contradict the number of criminal defendants who end up in jail—a rising tide that was already well into its upswing by the time Bush wrote his book. Back then, though, the Florida governor chalked up prosecutorial weakness to America's national victim complex.

This victimization is reaching absurd levels. Look at how many criminals are the victims. Prisoner lawsuits are clogging our judicial system. We even consider a criminal's background before passing judgment. Was he abused? Was he poor? Were his parents drug addicts? Did he have an abnormal upbringing? All unfortunate circumstances, but no excuse for criminal behavior.

If you're wondering whether Bush takes this victim-blaming to its natural extension, I'll go ahead and spoil it for you: He does.

People have gradually learned that being a victim gives rise to certain entitlements, benefits and preferences in society. These entitlements are bestowed with little or no corresponding responsibilities. The surest way to get something in today's society is to elevate one's status to that of the oppressed. Many of the modern victim movements, the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, the black empowerment movement and other movements based on social status or race have attempted to get people to view themselves as part of a smaller group deserving of something from society rather than viewing themselves as an integral part of a society in which they strive to make a contribution to the whole.

Bush goes on to enlist Martin Luther King, Jr. as sympathetic to his way of thinking, arguing that the civil rights leader envisioned a society in which people were judged "by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin — or sexual preference or gender or ethnicity." It's an impressively complete misreading of Dr. King's life and philosophy. In Bush's mind, the goal of feminism, gay rights, and racial justice movements—three of the most pivotal civil-rights fights in US history—is not equality, but special treatment and "benefits."

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Whether any of this will be enough to convince the Republican Establishment that Jeb Bush may not be their safest presidential option remains to be seen. But it could certainly start dissuading those mythical moderates of the notion that the younger Bush scion is the sane centrist they've been waiting for.

Follow Kevin Lincoln on Twitter.

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