How the Bush Family Went From Hated to Hipster

Between socks, biking, and bather-selfie paintings, the Bushes know how to make people forget about their legacy.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 8: President-elect George Bush and his family celebrate his victory during Bush's acceptance speech 08 November 1988 at the Brown Convention Center in Houston. (Photo credit should read WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images)
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Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
April 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

There was a time when the Bush fam­ily was widely re­viled by the ar­bit­ers of cool, but in the last few years, both Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush and his son have been re­cast as hip­ster icons.

First there was George W. Bush’s bik­ing and In­s­tagram savvy. Later we learned of his painted bather self-por­traits. Ju­li Wein­er, then a blog­ger for Van­ity Fair, has bril­liantly doc­u­mented his evol­u­tion from war­mon­ger­ing es­tab­lish­ment­ari­an to re­flect­ive artist.

The next great de­vel­op­ment on the Bush fam­ily cool­ness front came Monday when George W.’s fath­er an­nounced to the masses that the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee had is­sued a spe­cial-edi­tion pair of socks in his hon­or. Though his love of socks had already been doc­u­mented in nu­mer­ous In­ter­net slideshows, the RNC cam­paign kicked off a new slew of me­dia cov­er­age.

“I’m a self-pro­claimed sock man,” George H.W. Bush wrote in an email to RNC email sub­scribers. “The louder, the bright­er, the cra­zi­er the pat­tern — the bet­ter! It’s usu­ally the first thing people no­tice I’m wear­ing whenev­er I’m out in pub­lic and that’s the way I like it.”

It wasn’t un­til sev­er­al hun­dred words in that H.W. got around to say­ing that these lim­ited-edi­tion socks, em­broidered with the Re­pub­lic­an ele­phant and signed by him, would go to help raise money for the RNC ahead of the midterm elec­tions. And by then it had already made the rounds on Twit­ter, with re­port­ers like The Hill‘s Gar­i­elle Levy tweet­ing, “I’d rock some 41 socks.”

That’s de­cidedly not a polit­ic­al state­ment on Levy’s part. Rather it’s fur­ther evid­ence of just how suc­cess­ful the Bush fam­ily has be­come in laun­der­ing its polit­ic­al leg­acy (did someone say John Yoo tor­ture memos?) in the vin­tage wash of quirky, apolit­ic­al cool. It also doesn’t hurt that H.W. is now 89 years old, an in­stant hip­ster bon­afide (for any­one con­fused by that, see Vogue‘s ode to “Grandma chic” or The Wire on “Grandpa chic“).

The Clin­tons, by con­trast, have been much more polit­ic­ally act­ive. After Bill Clin­ton left the White House, he foun­ded a massive eponym­ous found­a­tion, which leads an an­nu­al con­fer­ence of cor­por­ate lead­ers and glob­al heads of state. That, in ad­di­tion to giv­ing speeches and cam­paign­ing for the Dems.

When the former pres­id­ent took the stage at the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion in 2012, it was not to talk about his love of socks or about find­ing his in­ner De­gas in a bathtub. It was to give the sin­gu­larly most mov­ing speech of the con­ven­tion, over­shad­ow­ing even Pres­id­ent Obama with his oratory skills and help­ing to push Obama’s na­tion­al sup­port over the top.

The polit­ic­al prowess on dis­play in that speech spawned a whole new wave of me­dia ana­lys­is, in­clud­ing Politico‘s “How Bill Clin­ton does it” and Poynter’s “10 rhet­or­ic­al strategies that made Bill Clin­ton’s speech ef­fect­ive.” The biggest cri­ti­cism? Clin­ton wouldn’t stop talk­ing. That seems to run in the fam­ily.

Hil­lary Clin­ton was nev­er the pres­id­ent, but like her hus­band, she hasn’t shied away from pub­lic life, win­ning more del­eg­ates than any fe­male pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in Amer­ic­an his­tory and serving as sec­ret­ary of state un­der Obama.

The mar­vel with Hil­lary is that she’s man­aged to stay polit­ic­ally act­ive while main­tain­ing more than a modic­um of hip­ster cred­ib­il­ity, as evid­enced by the pop­ular­ity of sites like Texts from Hil­lary. Wheth­er any of that can last bey­ond 2014 is an open ques­tion, but neither she nor her hus­band is show­ing any sign of trad­ing power for cool.

If the latest sock cam­paign is any in­dic­a­tion, the Bushes seem only too happy to make the swap (though Jeb Bush could com­plic­ate this nar­rat­ive by run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2016). The Bushes’ new­found cool­ness is also per­fectly in line with the GOP’s quiet push to win over young­er voters by dress­ing their policies up in tor­toise­shell glasses. Maybe these things are re­lated?

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