Way back in 2004, Kevin Phillips wrote a huge bestseller called American Dynasty, outlining the threat of having two men from the same family serving as President of the United States. “What makes the Bush family so different — and, in many ways, so dangerous — is that they’ve created a dynasty,” Phillips explained to Rolling Stone’s interviewer (who, typical of the book’s ga-ga coverage at the time, failed to bring up Adams 2 or 6 or their extensive political patrilineage).
Hard to believe now, but our fragile republic was fighting off not one but two potentially fatal infections — Regnum bushis and Regnum clintonis. Our love of dynasties was killing democracy … until it wasn’t.
Now, in the course of a single pandemic, we’ve gotten two exhaustive made-for-TV chronicles of that distant epoch when we were all supposedly infatuated with the families Bush and Clinton. In March we had the four-part Hillary docuseries from Hulu. And starting Monday, PBS’s long-running history franchise American Experience weighs in with George W. Bush, a two-night, four-hour recap of the Bush 43 presidency.
The contrasts are sharp. Whereas Hillary was a deeply personal documentary made in close partnership with Madam Secretary herself, American Experience has followed its time-honored approach — usually applied to dead presidents — of editorial independence, not interviewing W but instead letting journalists, historians, and insiders of varying degrees of loyalty tell the story of his somewhat improbable rise to power.
And while watching Hillary (for me anyway) is like having a long dinner with an old friend and slowly remembering why you two aren’t close anymore, watching George W. Bush is like attending the funeral of an old boss and hearing from other people that, really, he wasn’t such a bad guy … but he wasn’t that great a boss, either.
PBS producers Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron, seasoned hands at this kind of storytelling, have assembled an excellent lineup of talking heads who would all be on my short list: Lawrence Wright, Wayne Slater, Karen Hughes, Dick Clarke, David Frum, and the man known as “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove, who ran every campaign W won and was a West Wing lurker during those two terms.
I was a little surprised to see PBS bring Andy Card, Bush’s first chief of staff, and Ari Fleischer, his longtime press secretary and CNN bulldog, to the TV critics’ winter press tour to promote this film. If you’re trying to project an image of editorial independence (as I presume PBS was), maybe don’t bring along his two greatest admirers?
My fears, though, were assuaged after watching the first two hours of George W. Bush. If Card and Fleischer did work the refs, it’s not obvious except for perhaps the opening scene. About that scene: As you might expect with a film about the Bush presidency, we begin on 9/11. As the day begins, POTUS goes for a run, then arrives at a Florida elementary school to read to the class. So poetic — it’s in the American classroom where Bush thought his most lasting legacy would be made, and it’s Florida that put him over the top in the election, after a raucous and not quite endless recount.
Bush haters have worked the video of those minutes like the Zapruder film — Card whispering in his boss’ ear, the blank stare, Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat, etc. I think it’s fair that Card was given the chance here to set the record straight about what actually happened.
From there, the film smoothly rewinds to the beginning of Bush’s political career, when seemingly everyone underestimated him — including his own father, who waited up on election night of 1994 expecting sleepy Jeb to be elected governor of Florida (he wasn’t), only to be blindsided by the news that his other kid upset the governor of Texas.
So, was everyone going to underestimate him after 9/11 as well? Tune in and find out! Ha, just kidding. But it is remarkable how, even to a high-information voter like myself, George W. Bush is full of surprising insights and fresh takes on familiar events.
Yes, vice president Dick Cheney was a very powerful figure in the administration, who hand-picked Bush’s defense secretary, who in turn hand-picked the architects of the disastrous war in Iraq. But this was a Bush presidency, and there is enough evidence shown here to support the film’s primary assertion that he was, indeed, the “decider.”
That said, there is a telling quote from one of Colin Powell’s aides about a 2003 meeting with Bush in which Cheney and Powell clashed over invading Iraq. “The vice president knows how to get the cowboy to pull out his 45 and start shooting,” Powell complained, “and I can’t figure out how to get him to put it back in the holster.”
It’s such a good quote that I shouldn’t even bring up the fact that the producers of this film couldn’t get either Powell or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in front of a camera for interviews. “We very much want to do films in which there are still people alive to tell the story,” Goodman told me. Well, Powell and Rice are still alive, last I checked.
My only other complaint with George W. Bush is that the format feels very late-20th century. Docmakers today are skilled at getting their interviewees to do all the narration on camera. It’s sad that we owe this creative debt to MTV reality shows, but like it or not, viewers prefer the Unreliable Narrator to the Authoritative Voice of God. Because let’s face it, we’re all unreliable narrators.
To me, PBS’s Authoritative Voice of God sounds a lot like Dan Rather tossing off some of his cornpone bon mots. Campaigning for president in 2000, we’re told that Bush was “criss-crossing the country with the energy of a Texas twister.” In his inauguration, after the acrimony of the recount, “Bush sought to calm the frayed nerves of the country.” Oy.
I also thought it weird that the narrator randomly dropped a few heavy-tonnage word bombs like this one: “Woefully uneducated in foreign affairs — inclined to believe the worst about Saddam — Bush did nothing to probe the reliability of the CIA’s reporting. Instead he accepted as fact what Cheney and others had long argued,” yada yada. I just think if you’re going to say something like that, you should have someone on screen owning it.
So why didn’t we get a Bush dynasty? Partly it was the mess of W’s second term, with its very real human cost in Iraq. (That’s the focus of Tuesday’s second part.) But watching this film and Hillary, I thought also of that iron rule of television: If you overstay your welcome, the audience will let you know. Oprah still has a very high approval rating, but the Queen of Talk is now hosting a COVID-19 show that people are barely aware of. The Apprentice was the greatest show in the history of television, or so I’m told, but that didn’t keep its numbers from falling off a cliff. Even Duck Dynasty and all its little duckling dynasties will be cancelled someday. There are few things more democratic than the ratings.
American Experience: George W. Bush airs in two parts, tonight and tomorrow night on PBS.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.