HOUSTON, Texas -- As the storm clouds over Houston disappeared Monday afternoon, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush sat in front of an audience of top donors and bantered with his brother, former President George W. Bush about old summer jobs.
"I would come home where George was renting an apartment in the Rice area of Houston. And he would make me hose myself down butt naked, outside, before I could even come into the room!" the former Florida governor joked, describing how he reeked of ammonia after working long 12 hour days shoveling "ammoniated rice hulls" - husks of rice process for cattle feed, in the hot Texas sun for $2.10 an hour.
"It was right before the cell phone by the way -- thankfully!" President George W. Bush interjected - causing the audience to burst out in laughter. It was one of many humorous moments in a wide-ranging conversation between the two brothers that touched on more serious matters like 9/11, winning the Latino vote, and leadership.
In front of roughly 175 of the Bush family's most loyal supporters, each brother spoke up for the other. "Jeb understands the indispensible role of the United States to bring peace and won't be afraid to lead," former President George W. Bush said, while making the case that foreign policy would be an important part of this campaign. "I'm absolutely confident that given his background and his steadiness that he'll be able to deal with the unexpected in a way that Americans will proud of."
"The case study in leadership is how George responded to 9/11. Period. Over and out," said Jeb Bush. "The idea that a candidate would think he can make political hay to create a new narrative on the reality of how he led is a joke," he said, responding again to Donald Trump's comments about 9/11. Trump has suggested that George W. Bush's immigration policies bore some responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
For his part, George W. Bush, shared an analysis of his own actions on 9/11. "People who follow you are going to react to what a leader does. And how a leader feels," he said. "If you are inexperienced, the temptation would be to overreact. And so I was waiting for the appropriate moment to leave the classroom and went into a classroom full of parents who had not gotten the same news. And the second lesson of crisis is, you got to say something in order to reassure people that are following you that there is some kind of plan to deal with the crisis. I wasn't exactly sure what was taking place, but I walked into this class room of parents who had not gotten the same news, and I said we're under attack, and we'll deal with it."
Implicit in his story was the question of how those with little or no governing experience -- like Trump -- would react in those circumstances. The former president went on to talk about his brother. "It's the unexpected that's going to try Jeb when he's the next president. And I'm absolutely confident that given his background and his steadiness that he'll be able to deal with the unexpected in a way that Americans will be proud of," he said.
With former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush in attendance, the discussion between George and Jeb Bush was the highlight of the two-day donor retreat held on the fourth floor of a downtown Houston hotel. The message the Bush family intended to convey to its top donors was that experience matters.
"I have to believe eventually the American people will say, 'Who's had the experience necessary to be president? Who's run a state for example and done well?' And it's Jeb," the former President predicted.
The campaign made the case to donors that Bush's former protege, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is rising in the polls while Bush is falling, did not have that kind of experience. In a power point presentation given by Bush advisers earlier in the morning, one slide titled "Experience Matters" listed two bullet points -- one that said, "Marco is a GOP Obama" and another that listed the "striking similar profiles" between the two, from being "first time senators" to having "few legislative accomplishments."
Like Bush, Rubio is also vying for the support of mainstream Republicans and the Hispanic vote.
"The Latino vote is crucial," opined President Bush in the afternoon discussion. "And it's going to be essential that we not ignore the Latino vote or irritate the Latino vote. A lot of politics is relational." He spoke about his own efforts to get the Latino vote by showing "respect" and using language that was not one of "alienation but one of welcome and unity" adding that Jeb would do even better.
The presence of former President George H.W. Bush, who received a standing ovation from the crowd, and former first lady Barbara Bush was an important selling point of the gathering. "How do you think I got white hair?" Mrs. Bush jokingly asked towards the end of the event, "because I raised two older sons who caused me nothing..."
"But joy!" quipped former President George W. Bush, finishing her sentence.