The Prodigal Son’s Brother

Near the end of a Jeet Heer meditation on Jeb (!) Bush’s motivation to run for president is an interesting observation that may actually explain a lot:

In the context of the large Bush family, where men judge each other against their father and brothers, Jeb has stood out as the serious, thoughtful one, the straight shooter who followed the expected path to business and political success. His older brother George was famously the family wastrel, the Prodigal Son who wasted much of his life in dissolution and bad business decisions only to redeem himself in middle age.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is cherished by Christians as evidence of the power of forgiveness. Yet imagine being the younger brother of the Prodigal Son. You’ve spent your whole life working hard and following the rules, and then suddenly your ne’er-do-well brother picks up all the rewards. It might sour you on the family business the Prodigal Son has succeeded in.

There’s always been a fair amount of speculation about the Prodigal Son’s brother (older, not younger, actually). He is generally thought to have represented the legalistic and self-righteous Pharisees Jesus was forever battling–in other words, rigid and unimaginative people with a sense of entitlement based on perceived merit, and lacking the milk of human kindness. Sorta does sound like Jeb, doesn’t it? And if so, it definitely explains all his talk about doing things his way, and refusing to pander to “the base” or even develop a personal touch.

Jeb Bush’s dangerous but interesting argument that you have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” is usually interpreted as a strategic principle. But maybe he wants primary voters to bend the knee to him as the authentic conservative they imagine seeing in others. You know, the one who deserved his father’s inheritance.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.