George W. Bush left office over a decade ago, with his eight years as president long been consigned to the provenance of historians. However one might have felt about the 43rd president at the time of his administration, it was time to give those eight years of the first decade of the new millennium a second look.
“‘American Experience’ is very clever because they time these things so that enough time has gone by so that it really is ‘history’; it’s not journalism anymore,” said Barak Goodman, who produced the two-part “George W. Bush” for the PBS series. “The partisan rancor has subsided a little bit, and you could see the character more clearly.”
This ethos of peering backwards was similar to the approach Goodman took to “Clinton,” the 2012 “American Experience” production about Bush’s immediate predecessor. The removal, Goodman said, allows for both a more wholesome evaluation of his subjects as well as simultaneously deconstructing the myths that had grown around the two men as they held power.
“The feeling with Clinton and the George W. Bush films was [seeing the person] you lived with, [and] who I lived with, in a different, clearer light,” Goodman said.
Certainly, he believes, hindsight is being somewhat kinder to Bush than he was viewed contemporaneously from 2001-2009 — especially in his second term as the situation in Iraq descended into chaos, the response to Hurricane Katrina was bungled, and the housing crisis precipitated the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression.
The film doesn’t excuse Bush for any of these major missteps, and indeed takes to task his questionable decision-making and the increasing miasma in Iraq. Nor does it neglect to recollect that during the crisis of 9/11, Bush stepped up and became the leader few thought he could be as the privileged son of a political dynasty—and whose campaign many felt had stolen the 2000 election from Al Gore.
“I live in Brooklyn, and I saw the Twin Towers fall from my roof. To go through that kind of emotional experience again was interesting and kind of tough,” Goodman said, adding, “but to see it with fresh eyes was fascinating.”
The ethos handed down from those in charge of “American Experience” is that the filmmakers should not interview the subject himself so as to provide a more objective portrait. Ergo, Goodman and his team—frequent collaborator Chris Durrance (the pair also worked on the recent “Slay the Dragon”) and Jamila Ephron—interviewed not only journalists and historians but also members of Bush’s cabinet. These include chief-of-staff Andrew Card (famously photographed whispering into Bush’s ear that the first plane had hit the World Trade Center), Karl Rove and onetime press secretary Ari Fleischer.
However, Goodman says four key members of Bush’s team flat out turned the filmmakers down: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“It would have been interesting to have them in the film, but we know very well what they have to say—they’ve said it repeatedly,” Goodman said. “And in the case of Cheney and Rumsfeld, I find them to be extremely self-serving in their interviews…so I don’t think it would have added much depth to what we did.
“Instead we had plenty of their deputies who hadn’t been heard from a lot, and who had, I think, fresh, thoughtful takes on what happened and weren’t just [rehashing] the talking points again.”
The interviewees they did score, however, got the filmmakers “very close to the decision-making at the White House,” which Goodman said was their ultimate goal.
“Can you get inside that room? Can you understand what [Bush] was thinking and why he did what he did?” the filmmaker said. “We think we were able to achieve that with two chiefs of staff and lots of [sources] who were really close to the action.”
Despite Bush’s popularity in the weeks and months following 9/11, much of his presidency was ultimately defined by the Iraq War, launched under dubious intelligence as well as a hawkish push for the conflict by the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney.
However, Goodman said that neither the caricatures of Bush as Cheney’s puppet nor of Bush as an arch neoconservative true believer show the full measure of the man. Rather, the truth, Goodman believes, is somewhere in between.
Ultimately, it comes down to the distinction between a “deliberate lie” versus self-delusion.
“I think what we understand now about George W. Bush and that administration is that if they were lying, they were mostly lying to themselves,” Goodman said. “There was deliberate manipulation of facts when it came to ‘selling’ the Iraq War, but I became convinced in the course of doing this film that the decision to go in—and the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—came from a true conviction on the part of Bush, Cheney and others.
“And the question is why did they believe in such flimsy evidence? It goes to fascinating questions of leadership, and when you don’t have people in office who are vigorous about facts, you end up making emotional decisions.”
In the film, journalist George Packer makes this case succinctly in perhaps the documentary’s greatest moment, saying that Bush didn’t set out to purposely deceive the American people. Rather, he lied to himself, putting his faith in faulty reports and the righteousness of the cause, however misguided.
“Even so-called experienced people like Cheney and Rumsfeld were led down the primrose path by really bad intelligence,” Goodman said.
This extends to extreme rendition of enemy combatants and the torturing of prisoners, authorized not out of spite but rather because Bush saw his duty as to protect the American people.
“Even that came out of a place of wanting to avenge the deaths of people who died on 9/11,” Goodman said. “He had this very emotional side that sometimes overcame his reason.”
For all of Bush’s many flaws and missteps—the doc doesn’t shy away from his gaffes and infamous mispronunciations of even basic words—the film gives him credit where it is due, not the least on Bush’s push for AIDS funding in Africa via the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The program has continued to be one the defining projects of his post-presidency that he and Laura Bush continue to shepherd.
“That’s the very best example of his compassionate side and showed who he was,” Goodman said.
(An opinion article in the Financial Times from last summer even touted Bush as Africa’s “favorite US president.”)
Bush’s wish to help others, Goodman believes, may even have proved his tragic flaw.
“His failing was almost that he was too empathic and too compassionate,” Goodman said.
The former administration members and archivists at Bush’s presidential library in Dallas were incredibly helpful to the filmmakers, Goodman relates, and nearly all who agreed to appear on camera spoke about their subject with genuine affection, even as some were perhaps more critical than others. Even the filmmaker himself came away with a newfound respect for the former president, as well as a genuine belief in Bush’s character and genuine concern for others.
“I like the guy [and] I think he’s a very good human being. Maybe in over his head as president, but a good person,” Goodman said. “Being president is a lot about being humble, and being humble [requires] high standards of evidence before you act.”
And perhaps the intervening years allow the public to look back on the 43rd president somewhat differently. Partly, Goodman believes, that may be due to the trials in the country that have since followed.
“In one sense [the Bush years] contributed very strongly to the disillusionment that a lot of people have with government,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t the only cause, but it fanned that flame—distrust of what government told us—because, in that case, they got it so wrong.”
In its nearly four hours, the documentary traces Bush’s life from his youth all the way up to his final day on the job, Jan. 20, 2009, when he handed power to his successor Barack Obama.
Perhaps another film will examine the years of Bush’s life since leaving office, but Goodman said his mandate was to concentrate on the workings of the administration and how the job reveals the character of the White House occupant.
“In the case of George W. Bush, he really has had a very interesting post-presidency, and in many ways his image has changed quite a lot in the course of those years,” Goodman said. “That is interesting, but we wanted to focus on the White House and what happened there.”
Having now completed documentaries about both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, I asked Goodman, who continues to work on new projects from his home in Brooklyn during the pandemic, if he might later move on to films about Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It’s a big yes for Obama, but the filmmaker says he “wouldn’t touch Trump with a ten-foot pole.”
“And not for partisan reasons, but what are you really going to say? It’s been four years of shouting and screaming, and there’s nothing to talk about it,” he said. “There’s nothing to me interesting about this period other than how the hell do we get out of it?
“There’s no nuance at all.”
“American Experience: George W. Bush,” will air in two parts on PBS beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern Monday, May 3rd 2020.