Jeb Bush should know better than to take a hypothetical question

What family has had more media exposure and experience in the last few years than any other?

OK, if you said the Kardashian/West/Jenner clan, I can’t fault you.

But somewhere in the top two or three has to be the George H.W./Barbara/George W./Jeb Bushes.

And what any of them should know, and one of the key rules we emphasize in EMA’s media training, is you don’t answer a hypothetical question.

Whether it’s Barbara Walters asking what kind of tree you are, or Megyn Kelly on Fox asking about invading Iraq. Stick to reality. Ask me about here and now.

That’s why it’s so confounding to see the most recent contretemps involving the erstwhile Republican presidential candidate and former Florida governor. Even Dubya would have gotten this one right.

And what reinforces this view is that he got the answer right — the second time, 24 hours later.

As MSNBC recounted: The story began on Monday, when Fox News aired an interview between Bush and host Megyn Kelly, in which she asked him whether “knowing what we know now,” the former Florida governor would have authorized the invasion of Iraq.

“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got,” Bush said.

Later in the day, after the you know what hit the you know where, he back pedaled, claiming he didn’t understand the question, arguing he was being asked if he’d have made the same decision in 2002-03, as his brother did.

Here’s how The New York Times characterized Bush’s mop-up efforts the next day on Fox’s Sean Hannity radio program:

Image result for jeb bush megyn kelly

“I interpreted the question wrong, I guess,” Mr. Bush said. “I was talking about, given what people knew then.”

The attempt at mopping-up was quick, but it did not bring the controversy to an immediate end: When Mr. Hannity asked about the 2003 Iraq invasion again, in yes-or-no fashion, Mr. Bush said he did not know what the answer would have been, saying, “That’s a hypothetical.”

Then, he seemed to go out of his way to absolve his brother, former President George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion: “Mistakes were made, as they always are in life,” Mr. Bush said.

It was the third time in six weeks that Mr. Bush had to back pedal, offering a stark reminder that despite his deep political ties and his family’s history in elected office, he remains a novice on the national campaign trail.

Allies believe that Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, has had to contend with an unfair level of scrutiny that no other Republican has faced. Though his team still lacks formal structure, Mr. Bush is generally more visible than, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who entered the race for the Democratic nomination in mid-April but has not taken reporters’ questions in three weeks.

But for Mr. Bush, the last six weeks have been a bracing reminder that helping a relative run for president is not the same as running yourself.

Mr. Bush, who is said to take a dim view of his Republican rivals’ leadership qualities, prides himself on his candor, authenticity and ability to work without a script, and his skills as a candidate have noticeably sharpened. But he has repeatedly paid a price for straying from his briefing notes.

Rookie or not, if you get a hypothetical question, here’s a good way to answer:

“That’s hypothetical, Megyn, and no one can rewrite history. Obviously, Iraq did not turn out as anyone would have liked. But looking back on it now, I believe that Americans served there with honor, and we upheld the principals this nation was founded on.”

Hypothetically, at least.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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