New York (FAIR) “A welcome return.”
That’s how the Guardian (2/27/17), in all sincerity, referred to George W. Bush’s mild criticisms of Donald Trump delivered to the reliably softball hosts of NBC‘s Today show. Bush alternately extolled the virtues of the news media (“indispensable to democracy“), waxed philosophical on the contributions of immigrants to America (“I am for an immigration policy that’s welcoming“) and decried Trump’s Islamophobic Muslim ban as antithetical to America’s tolerance of other faiths (“a bedrock of our freedom”).
“It says a lot about the United States that Mr. Bush can be seen now as a paragon of virtue,” the Guardian‘s editorial board wrote.
Well, it certainly says a lot about corporate media.
As numerous commentators in independent media pointed out, Bush’s record in the White House should hardly be whitewashed. The Trump policies and ideologies Bush criticized were often ones his own administration had winked at or openly promoted.
This type of post-presidency image rehabilitation is nothing new in American politics; US news media have been massaging the images of Oval Office alumni for decades. Last-guy normalization is used as a cudgel to cajole or shame the current president into adapting or rejecting any number of political policies or priorities.
George W. Bush always had the shadow of the last Republican leader hanging over him—all the more so because that leader was his father. And Bush Jr. didn’t do much to dispel those comparisons, loading his Cabinet and the White House with relics of his father’s administration and, of course, launching a war on Iraq barely a decade after his dad’s. This was easy to psychologize, as Jake Tapper did (Salon, 3/11/03) when he peculiarly called Bush Jr. decision to invade the same country his father did the “ultimate act of rebellion” against that same father.
Some in the media used the familial comparison to make W seem more presidential, a firmer decision-maker than his “wimp” father. In The Atlantic (4/04), Richard Brookhiser praised Bush Jr.’s instinctive grasp of politics and iron hold on his staff—in contrast to Bush Sr., whose chaotic White House was filled with “fireworks,” and who lost his reelection bid for “failing to attend to domestic issues.”
Yet as the Iraq War dragged on, the elder Bush’s image began to improve as his son’s reputation declined. David Greenberg compared the two men for a 2004 article in the New Yorker (7/12/04), concluding that for all the son’s efforts to be his own man, he was first and foremost his father’s son—the difference, Greenberg said, was that Bush Jr. lacked his father’s patience. Howard Fineman (NBC News, 7/6/05) also contrasted father and son in a 2005 article on the Supreme Court: “The father fought in a war; the son didn’t. The father didn’t go to Baghdad; the son did.”
In 2005, ABC World News Tonight (12/27/05) named George H.W. Bush its co-person of the year, alongside Bill Clinton. The two former presidents who fought a bitter election in 1992 were all smiles as they raised money together for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the contrast between the father’s work to help the victims of a natural disaster and the son’s perceived indifference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was stark.
By the end, the comparisons had congealed into a believable narrative: Bush 43 had impulsively tried to finish Bush 41’s war, but 41’s decision to leave Iraq was the right one. The family’s divisions had destroyed a country, and it was all because of 43’s need to one-up his dad.
- John Judis (American Prospect, 10/19/07) wrote that the elder Bush had fought Iraq the right way—a model his son disregarded: “George H.W. Bush’s administration built a coalition through the UN to drive Iraq out of Kuwait,” while his son “disdained international organizations.”
- Michael Getler’s review of Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (“The Sins of the Son,” Washington Post, 1/20/08) observed that “what once looked like Bush 41’s failure to finish the job ‘now looked like an act of wisdom…. Appreciating the value of stability now sounded like maturity. Avoiding needlessly bellicose rhetoric seemed like common sense.’”
- John R. MacArthur, writing for Harper’s (9/30/08), scorned the “candidly provincial son of a worldly father [who] found himself frequently embarrassed by his lack of basic knowledge about foreign countries.” Bush 41, MacArthur argued, was a more mature statesman; 43, thrust into an international politics, was never able to quite make it work.
Bush left office as the disgraced son of a political dynasty. His father, on the other hand, emerged from his son’s two terms as a respected elder statesman—with the wreck he made of Iraq, not to mention the disasters left behind after his unilateral invasions of Panama and Somalia, forgiven and mostly forgotten.
Fast-forward eight years, and the same technique is being used to whitewash Bush Jr.’s record at the expense of Trump, who is 19 percentage points less popular than Bush was at this point in his first term.
The media’s new praise for Bush is indicative of historical amnesia; this was, after all, the man who dismissed predictive intelligence in advance of the most devastating terror attack in US history; who codified torture into US law, started a war of choice in Iraq that killed an estimated half million people, and finger-picked while Katrina flooded, let the country slip into the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and tried to implement the first version of Trump’s Muslim ban into place some 14 years ago. (It was, thankfully, just as successful as Trump’s first attempt.)
After Bush’s appearance on Today, he made the media rounds. He appeared on the Ellen Show (3/2/17) on March 2 and posed for pictures on the host’s Instagram account. The chummy pictures and friendly interview might make one forget that Bush called for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2004 in a blatant ploy for reelection.
After the Ellen appearance, the former president swung by Jimmy Kimmel Live (3/2/17) for a friendly discussion about Bush’s new book of paintings. The profits go to veterans, Bush told the host and the audience, glossing over the artist’s contributions to creating veterans’ problems in the first place.
The Guardian acknowledged Bush Jr.’s history in its editorial. “He sounds a lot better out of office than in it,” the paper wrote. Yes, he does—and the media are helping him to sound that way.
Eoin Higgins is a journalist and historian from Western Massachusetts. You can find more of his work at eoinhiggins.com and follow him on twitter at @EoinHiggins_. This post originally ran on FAIR.org.