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Politics & Government

Jeb Bush Faces Criticism Over Iraq War Comments

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Jeb Bush is not yet an official candidate for president. Still, he's had to contend with the legacy of his brother, President George W. Bush. A reminder of that came up last night during an interview Jeb Bush did with Fox News when the topic of Iraq came up. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was primetime on the Fox News Channel, one of the network's most popular shows, "The Kelly File," with anchor Megyn Kelly. She raised the question of the Iraq war.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KELLY FILE")

MEGYN KELLY: On the subject of Iraq...

JEB BUSH: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Obviously very controversial. Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?

BUSH: I would have.

GONYEA: Jeb Bush's answer started with that affirmative statement. Then he continued making the case that he's not alone in that position.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KELLY FILE")

BUSH: I would have. And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

GONYEA: Bush is referring there to Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote in the U.S. Senate to authorize the use of force. Ultimately, Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction the White House and intelligence reports claimed. Clinton has since said her vote was a mistake. Also in the interview, Jeb Bush stressed that he and his brother both acknowledge mistakes in how the mission was carried out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KELLY FILE")

BUSH: Yeah, I mean, so, just for the, you know, newsflash to the world if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.

GONYEA: But then this afternoon in another interview, this one on the Sean Hannity radio show, Bush changed his answer. He said he misinterpreted the question from Megyn Kelly, and he told Hannity that he doesn't know what he would have done and called it a hypothetical. It underscores how tricky this subject is for Jeb Bush. The Iraq war remains very unpopular. Sixty-six percent in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll say it wasn't worth it. But Republican strategist Rich Galen says that number doesn't take into account more recent foreign policy worries that people have under a Democratic president.

RICH GALEN: I mean people are reading every day about ISIS and about Iran. And it is a different time, a different place, and we're looking at different issues.

GONYEA: And, he notes, election day 2016 is still a long way off.

GALEN: I'm not sure it matters one way or the other - 18 months away, we'll see what else is on people's minds at the time.

GONYEA: But Democratic pollster Peter Hart has a different view. He considers Bush's comments very meaningful because they connect him to his brother's most unpopular decision.

PETER HART: Iraq has such a strong stench in terms of the American public.

GONYEA: And, Hart says, at this very early stage of the campaign, people are still getting to know Jeb Bush. They think of him as a Bush first, which brings with it a lot of history.

HART: And the challenge for Jeb Bush is to be able to establish his credentials rather than getting caught and enmeshed in his brother's administration.

GONYEA: That's clearly something Bush knows as he tours the country in advance of his expected announcement. In public appearances, he talks about his family. He says how proud he is of both Presidents Bush, his father and his brother. Then comes this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: But I'm my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.

GONYEA: That's from a speech in Chicago. The catch for Jeb Bush is how to make such distinctions. George W. Bush, meanwhile, said at a private event last month that he is one of his brother's biggest problems when it comes to the campaign. He added that he'll help by laying low. But that won't stop the questions on Fox News and elsewhere. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.