Former President George W. Bush sat on stage for a question-and-answer session with the Republican Jewish Coalition on Sunday in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — Former President George W. Bush offered rare, and broad-ranging, remarks Saturday night about current national-security threats and the 2016 presidential campaign to a large audience of Jewish donors, suggesting that sanctions on Iran should not be lifted, that his last name was a burden to his brother, the likely presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and that Hillary Rodham Clinton, while “formidable,” was beatable.
Bush sat on stage for an hourlong question-and-answer session in front of a ballroom that included Sheldon Adelson, the Republican donor who owns the Italian-themed Venetian hotel and casino that hosted the spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, of which Adelson is also a board member. George W. Bush’s remarks come as Jeb Bush is on the verge of formally announcing his candidacy, after four months of aggressive fundraising.
At one point, according to more than a half-dozen guests leaving the ballroom and one attendee who transcribed remarks during the event, George W. Bush was asked a winking question about the qualities he sought in a president. But instead of aggressively boosting his brother, whom he described as capable, he acknowledged being a liability to his brother’s candidacy, noting that it was easy for his rivals to say in debates that we don’t need another Bush.
“He basically said being a Bush is a challenge,” said Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who attended the speech.
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“He essentially said people don’t want dynasties in America,” recalled Elise Weingarten, another attendee. (The event, held behind closed doors, was off the record, with a “no notes” rule announced at the beginning.)
According to other attendees, George W. Bush expressed a reluctance to enter the campaign fray because it would be unhelpful to his brother, but also unseemly. “That’s why you won’t see me,” he said.
But on this occasion, speaking in a relaxed, warm style with several humorous asides, George W. Bush was front and center as he received extended ovations. He spoke admiringly of the “good candidates” in the field and reserved his political assessments for Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination who last campaigned to replace him in 2008.
His candid remarks come as his brother convenes the first major meeting of his donors and supporters in Miami Beach on Sunday and Monday.
Harvey Weingarten, another attendee, said that George W. Bush said the former first lady faced a predicament in determining whether to seek distance or continuity with the Obama administration, for which she served as secretary of state.
“It’s going to be hard for her to defend or support” the president’s legacy, Weinstein recalled Bush saying.
Given the current state of the world, he said, it’s tough either way.
He spoke dismissively of candidates who surrounded themselves with “sycophants” and bemoaned a culture built around a single person, or even a party. The goal, he stressed, should be about serving the national interest.
Bush, whose war in Iraq eventually became deeply unpopular and fueled President Obama’s 2008 candidacy, weighed in on the Middle East and the administration’s current pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, which was strongly opposed by most people in the room.
He said he was skeptical about lifting sanctions against Iran at a time when its government seemed to be caving in, attendees said, and regretted the leverage the United States would lose as a result of lifting the sanctions. He questioned whether the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, under whom the current framework for a deal has been discussed, represents a new policy or a “new spokesman” for the old regime, Weingarten recalled. He said that Bush talked about how there is “no transparency in Iran” because the supreme leader, and not the will of the people, picked the presidents.
And Bush was animated when speaking about the group calling itself the Islamic State, which he referred to as the “second act” of al-Qaida.
Several attendees sensed a tacit critique of Obama’s not following through on his threats to use force when Bush said “you gotta mean it” when talking tough, and that America’s allies and enemies needed to know where an American leader stood. He also discussed his own approach in Iraq, saying he changed course when it was warranted.
“You call in the military and say, ‘Here’s my goal. What’s your plan to help me achieve that goal?’ ” attendees quoted him as saying. He added that when asked what had to be done with terrorists bent on America’s destruction, the answer was “well, you kill ’em,” several attendees recalled.