Joan Smith: The Bushes are scandalous, but not glamorous

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The Independent Online

An author friend of mine, on a book tour of the United States, was invited to call in on a literacy project in Texas sponsored by the former First Lady Barbara Bush. To her surprise, a door suddenly opened to admit Mrs Bush's son George, currently the country's 43rd President, on an unannounced visit. He exchanged a few words with the assembled company, remarked plaintively on people's tendency to "misunderestimate" him, then departed to get on with the business of governing the world's only remaining superpower.

Mr Bush is not an impressive figure. He does not have the charisma of his scoundrelly predecessor Bill Clinton, nor the tragic glamour that attaches to members of the Kennedy clan. He is so unpopular with moderate Republicans that he has already pulled off the remarkable feat of losing one senator, while another, the independent-minded John McCain of Arizona, is believed to be considering his position. (A couple of months ago, I happened to be on a cruise ship in the South Pacific at the same time as Mr McCain. The Vietnam veteran made no secret of his anger towards Mr Bush or his conviction that the President had raised millions of dollars from oil companies to buy the top job.)

Next week, President Bush is likely to find himself in trouble with his European allies when he attends an EU summit and attempts to explain his unilateral rejection of the Kyoto treaty on climate change. He also has problems at home, with his daughter Jenna, whose filial rebellion appears to take the intriguing form of a compulsion to break her father's own law on the sale of alcohol to minors in Texas. All in all, it hardly seems an auspicious moment to hail the Bush family as "the most exciting dynasty in America", as the Old Etonian editor of Tatler, Geordie Greig, has just done.

Mr Greig's remarks were made at a bad moment for dynasties in general as another Old Etonian, Crown Prince Dipendra, wiped out most of his relatives in Nepal. Indeed the moment a family becomes a dynasty, it might be argued, is when the mundane domestic problems that afflict us all are replaced by drug overdoses, plane crashes, assassinations and even regicide.

Not to mention embarrassing arrests of junior members of the clan. If I were Mr Bush, or indeed Tony Blair, I would pencil in a return to private life in the not too distant future.

Nevertheless, the normally sensible Mr Greig declared bravely that the Bush family "outshine the Kennedys, they're more glamorous, more beautiful ­ they're almost matching them for scandal". Some of the extended Bush clan seem happy to go along with it, including the President's 16-year-old niece Lauren, who has posed for the cover of Tatler.

And Mr Greig is quite right in thinking the Bush family are a scandal ­ but not in the way that excites editors of glossy magazines. George Bush snr was no great shakes as a leader, but he did at least win a presidential election. George W couldn't even do that, as a scathing report from the US Civil Rights Commission confirmed last Friday.

Thousands of black voters in Florida were disenfranchised by the State's use of an inaccurate list of ex-convicts to remove their names from the electoral register. The mess was a family affair, with the commission pointing the finger of blame unequivocally at the President's brother, Governor Jeb Bush, whom it accused of "gross dereliction" of duty. The number of people denied the right to vote because they were wrongly recorded as felons was far more significant in winning Florida for George W than the contested ballot papers that grabbed the headlines. But the really explosive fact about the Florida electoral system is that in a state where most black people are Democrats, an estimated 30 per cent of black males have lost the right to vote because they have a criminal record. Florida's constitution says they can get it back, but only if they are granted clemency by the governor with the approval of three members of his cabinet. The system is so cumbersome that nearly 600,000 ex-convicts are, at the moment, unable to vote.

Florida is one of 13 states which ban felons either permanently or conditionally from voting. Lawyers challenging the bans argue that with incarceration at record levels ­ one in 20 black men over the age of 18 is in jail in the US ­ an entire class is being steadily disenfranchised. After last year's electoral shambles in Florida, Governor Bush declared himself in favour of electoral reform, but in April his Republican colleagues dropped a provision that would have restored ex-prisoners' voting rights. You should never misunderestimate those fabulous Bush boys.