Jeb Bush: Young Socialist?

Was the GOP frontrunner really a member of his prep school socialist club? A short study in how political memes take off.

Jim Young/Reuters

Was Jeb Bush a young socialist?

Numerous profiles of the Republican front-runner’s time at boarding school make reference to his brief time as a member of a campus socialist club. “He dallied with the Socialist Club at his elite boarding school, Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts,” journalist S.V. Dáte writes in his 2005 book Jeb: America’s Next Bush. According to The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty by Peter Schweizer and his wife, Rochelle, Jeb joined the club sometime during his four years at the school, better known as Andover, which both his father and older brother had attended.

The claim is repeated in passing in a piece Alec MacGillis wrote for Slate about Jeb’s relationship with his Andover classmate and future New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. A 2012 profile of Jeb for New York magazine also refers to Jeb’s membership in the socialist club during a pot-addled “short period of rebellion.”

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t appear to be true.

There’s no record of such a club existing during Jeb’s 1967-1971 stint at the school. The Phillipian, Andover’s school newspaper, never mentions a socialist club on campus, and neither does the school yearbook.

For what it’s worth, Bush’s campaign says it’s all bunk. He wasn’t involved with any socialist club during his time at Andover, according to Jeb spokesman Tim Miller, and “has no idea” where the claim originated.

This is what we do know about Jeb Bush’s time at Andover: For the most part, he didn’t like it. He told The Boston Globe it was a “difficult time” in his life. “I was a cynical little turd at a cynical school,” he told the Miami Herald. He did indeed grow his hair long, and has admitted to drinking and smoking pot while at the school. (“I remember him smoking a lot of dope,” one former classmate told Vanity Fair in 2001.)

Jeb was an indifferent student his first few years there, but straightened out after meeting his future wife Columba during a school trip to Mexico when he was 17. By senior year he had made the dean’s list and was captain of the tennis team. But he remained, according to many accounts, largely apolitical while at Andover, although he was in his own words “ambivalent” about or “probably against” the Vietnam War. According to his mother, he seriously thought about registering as a conscientious objector, a claim Jeb later disputed. Although he never volunteered to fight, he did register for the draft in 1971.

Rebellious? Check. Long hair? Check. Weed? Yup, and apparently a lot of it. He was, as one former classmate put it to Vanity Fair, a “budding hippie” at an establishment bastion rapidly veering leftward.

But while Young Jeb had a certain Prodigal Son thing going on, there’s nothing to really back up the claim that he was ever a socialist.

Paige Roberts, Andover’s director of Archives and Special Collections, told The Daily Beast that she had “not heard anything about a socialist club” at the school at the years Jeb was there. However, she said that “there is less [information] related to student clubs and activities than I would like.”

So, then, where did the story come from?

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MacGillis, who now writes for ProPublica, told me he got the info from Peter Schweizer’s book. Schweizer, the conservative author behind the much covered Clinton Cash, wrote “a solid, well-researched, workmanlike book, less friendly to the Bushes than one would expect given Schweizer’s politics,” according to MacGillis, despite what he describes as “a few comically blatant shadings and elisions here and there.” (Schweizer briefly worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush years after The Bushes was published in 2004.)

“My best guess is that the club was so short-lived or half-assed that it never showed up as an official one in the lists you’re looking at.” MacGillis added. “I seem to recall somewhere in my research seeing a mention of the fact that Andover had a club for just about everything.”

Jeb author Dáte, who covered Bush when he was governor of Florida and now works for National Journal, also said he got the socialist club tidbit from Schweizer’s book, as did Joe Hagan, who wrote the New York piece. Schweizer, meanwhile, was unable to tell The Daily Beast where he got the information, though he recalled sourcing it to a media report. In the edition of The Bushes purchased by The Daily Beast, however, the claim is not sourced at all.

But, as MacGillis noted, there were plenty of clubs at Andover, and many were sarcastic in nature. Students involved in a campus prank—like, say, vandalizing the school library late at night—would form a club with some innocuous name as an in-joke, a way to thumb their nose at the administrators who never caught them. Perhaps the “Andover Socialist Club” was something along those lines, formed and dissolved between bong-rips one weekend.

In fact, it’s kind of hard to imagine that an Andover Socialist Club never existed, especially during the Vietnam era. By the end of Jeb’s tenure at the school, the yearbook included not just pictures of peace protests but crying Vietnamese peasants. The student body was radicalized, and a makeshift bomb was found on the campus in 1971.

But it doesn’t look like that was ever Jeb’s scene. He started as something of an apathetic “slob,” as classmate (and potential Democratic presidential candidate) Lincoln Chafee one labeled him, and left a studious, almost-handsome jock dating the woman he would one day marry. We may never know if, in the interim, Jeb Bush sat in on some dorm room Marxist bull sessions, but if he did, he probably didn’t stay long, or absorb much.