Try as he might, Jeb! just doesn't get it.
To the usual drum roll (and both drum and sticks are looking a little worse for wear), the Bush campaign rolled out the new, new Jeb! this week. The new Jeb!, unlike the previous new Jeb!s, would from now on be tough, bold, brave and fearless. The family's instinctive good manners be darned. Jeb! would breakfast on barbed wire with a side of 10-penny nails. Call in the women and children, lock the doors, put up the storm shutters and everybody get out of his way. The earth is about to shake, rattle and roll.
The makeover didn't last long. He renounced his one good line in the last Republican presidential debate, when he remarked that Marco Rubio's frequent breaks from Senate duties reminded him of the three-day French work week.
That would needle Marco at the expense of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys. A double shot at a familiar target. The chuckles had hardly subsided before it occurred to Jeb! that maybe he had hurt someone's feelings in a bar on the Marseille waterfront.
He didn't wait to see whether the French would say anything about this breach of Bush manners. The French, being the sophisticated French with an understanding of the long love-hate relationship with the colonies, let it go. Jeb! struck out on the apology trail, anyway.
He told reporters in New Hampshire that it was "wrong to criticize the French." What? Has he forgotten that needling the French, and taking needling in return, was the national pastime before Abner Doubleday, who invented baseball, got to second base. "I really did a disservice to the French," he said. Disservice? Didn't he spell their names right? Did he mispronounce something? The French don't care what you do, exactly, as long as you say it in French and make no mistake with the pronunciation. He's not John Kerry, after all.
Then he went into more detail than he needed to correct an offense that nobody took. "I made the mistake of saying that Congress operates on a French work week. I now know that the average French work week is actually greater than the German work week. So, my God! I totally insulted an entire country, our first ally, that helped us to become free as a nation! And I apologize. That did a huge disservice to France. It didn't really get to the magnitude of the problem, the three-day work week." (The exclamation he wanted, by the way, was "Mon Dieu!")
Poor Jeb! He used up an entire year's supply of exclamation points, which are never proper, anyway, it's like laughing at your own joke. Mein Gott! Now he owes the Germans an apology, too.
If only in his own mind, Jeb! has mangled manners more than he imagines. As the scion of one of the last distinguished WASP families left in America, he is suspect in France, no matter what he says. Of French presidents from Charles de Gaulle down to the present day, nothing gets in the Gallic craw like something from harsh from what the French call "the Anglo-Saxons."
The very term is said with a snark and meant as insult. America's armies, useful as they may sometimes be for the French, are dismissed by rote when their usefulness is finished, as "the Anglo-Saxons." This is of course news to Tyrone, Maggio, Mario and others in the barracks who never knew they were tall, blond and blue-eyed.
The Bush boys learned at their daddy's knee that bashing is rude and hurtful, but bashing the French is as American as hot dogs, tacos, turnip greens and apple pie. Jeb! should have basked in whatever afterglow he found in the wake of his putdown of the French work week. He need not have come up with a statistical analysis of the European working class, correcting the numbers and apologizing to the frogs. The French knew it was all in a day's work.
Jeb Bush, with or without that unnecessary exclamation point, is a presidential candidate out of time. He might make a very good president, but not this year. He should retreat to 1950. The Bush decency, manners and consideration for the feelings of others are exiles from another age.
Not so long ago, WASP Episcopalians held the franchise on presidents. This year we've got blacks, rowdy whites, a woman, Baptists, Hispanics, Methodists and even a Seventh-Day Adventists in the remarkable buffet put before us. It's no fault of Jeb! that he's just too darn nice for his own good, but this is not the year for nice.