“George W. Bush,” the newest addition to PBS’s “American Experience” presidential biography catalogue, debuts at a curious time in our history. Within its four hours, airing in two parts on Monday and Tuesday, May 4 and 5, filmmakers Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron are charged with profiling the person behind the office with the mission of better enabling us to understand their subject as a human being and how his personality shaped a most consequential presidency.
Every president has his admirers and detractors, but Bush is one of the more polarizing figures among our presidents who are still living. His administration was an instrumental force in metastasizing the right-wing conservatism and the influence of Fox News. His White House is one whose policies were largely influenced by his Vice President Dick Cheney and top advisers such as Karl Rove, and the one forever defined by the catastrophic attacks on September 11, 2001, the most impactful event in modern American history . . . until 2016.
Now, as the United States buckles under the ravages of a pandemic mismanaged by Donald Trump, Bush looks utterly statesmanlike in comparison. But the effects of his presidency’s policies and mistakes remain with us even now. Whenever tensions flare in the Middle East, we’re reminded of his administration’s role in selling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the American public using false information. Our continued presence in Afghanistan is part of the longest armed conflict in American history, with no end in sight.
The best decisions, Goodman noted in a recent interview with Salon, came at the end of Bush’s eight years in office. “It was only after his approval rating was in the 20s or low 30s that you really had a functioning president, ” he said. “That’s the tragedy of it. I think he felt this sort of sense of the tragic failure of his administration and this irony that it was only then that he really rose to it.“
Bush’s administration is synonymous with the moral stain of Abu Ghraib and the revelation that American troops tortured civilians; domestically, his White House failed citizens devastated by Hurricane Katrina and oversaw levels of banking deregulation that led to the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. For all of these reasons, his “American Experience” chapter might not register as a franchise favorite.
Still, we should appreciate the efforts Goodman and Ephron made in ushering it into existence. Goodman, who also produced the two-part “Clinton” in 2012, shared that standard practice for these documentaries dictates that their filmmakers wait for about a decade after the end of a presidency before starting their production. Within that same time period Bush, Cheney, and their surrogates have become fixtures in conservative media or the basis of roles in Oscar bait such as “Vice.”
Because of this, the sanguine first half of “George W. Bush,” which prominently features interviews from Bush’s former chief of staff Andrew Card, former press secretary and current Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer, Rove, and others, at time feels like a questionable spit-polish on a checkered historic record. Only those two hours of “George W. Bush” was available for review when I interviewed Goodman and Ephron; Part 2 builds upon the foundational profile of the opening two hours by surgically and fairly assessing Bush’s efforts and mistakes during his eight years in office, sticking mostly to history as opposed to the acrid politics surrounding his policy-making.
In this interview with the filmmakers, I spoke to them about their approach and the responsibility of profiling a living president for “American Experience,” and the challenge inherent in relying on the perspectives of a number of very famous liars in creating a profile that strives to be accurate and honest. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start by discussing your central mandate and driving thesis in terms of producing these presidential biographies for “American Experience.” I ask because in the first half, there are references to mileposts in Bush’s political climb, starting with his childhood and the Bush family legacy, then expediently moving forward through the steps he takes to rise in the world of politics: his time as a Texas businessman, his purchase of the Texas Rangers, and eventually becoming governor. I wondered why there wasn’t more discussion about the policies he enacted while he was governor, his achievements setbacks.
I realize that in a series like “Frontline,” these aspects of Bush’s political career would receive closer examination and critique. So to circle back to the original question, how does “American Experience” mandate differ for you as producers? Are you unable to question various defining policies in a subject’s political career? Are you limited to just discussing historical benchmarks?
Barak Goodman: I’m glad you brought up “Frontline,” because it’s a good way of kind of distinguishing what we do from what news does.
Yes, that was intentional.
Goodman: I think you’re right, that “Frontline” would have been much more obsessed, for example, with his achievements as governor of Texas. We’re more interested in his character and how as a human being, he’s developing the traits that he takes with him from the earlier years that then become relevant in the presidency.
These portraits are very characterological. They’re very much more kind of novelistic than they are kind of an analytical. “Frontline” has done wonderful work on the kind of blow-by-blow of the decision-making surrounding the Iraq war. But they left the field wide open for us to understand the man and his relationships, and his drives and his character. And that’s where Jamila and I tried to fill in the gap.
But I don’t know that there has been a really exhaustive look at his life before. This isn’t a critique, it’s more a question to help me understand. What is it that you felt like you needed to really highlight in this particular biography that might not have been seen in others? Again, there isn’t much exploration of what political achievements he enacted in Texas that would have made presidential material. That is, besides being born with the Bush family name.
Ephron: Right. That’s a fair observation and it did seem like the sort of a whirlwind, how he came from being this unsuccessful businessman to suddenly being a very competitive governor against a very popular incumbent. But I think for us, from a storytelling point of view, we needed to get him to the White House as soon as possible. And so the governor years became about that transition from the sort of bridging the gap between his earlier life and what made him a presidential contender.
Goodman: It’s very improbable: the scion of a president and a famous family who’s a kind of screwup and a drinker and then has this sort of miraculous turn, and then everything that follows after. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that it’s great fodder for drama. It’s a curse in two ways. One is there’s just a lot of ground to cover and that’s what Ephron is referring to. But also because I think in other biographies and in lots of other venues, – “Vice” I’m thinking of, in Hollywood and so on – it’s really subject to caricature. The Bush that people think they know is often a caricature, not the real person.
And that’s where the opportunity was for us. We felt, you know, sure, he drank. But he also was a deeply observant Christian. He had this tragedy in his childhood of losing his sister and had to step up and become the man of the house and a joker to keep his parents from mourning too much. So there’s nuance here that can create a new portrait of the man which we think is closer to the real man.
The current presidency has left a lot of mixed feelings about George Bush. Between year one and year two of the Trump presidency people looked at back on Bush perhaps a bit more kindly. Recent events have turned that around again, especially as people re-examine how we came to be mired in conflict in the Middle East. And many of the people who surrounded him have been resurgent on Fox News and other cable outlets. You feature a number of them in this “American Experience” biography.
How does this change your approach in terms of presenting what these figures have to say about Bush’s legacy? These are subjects who a significant portion of the audience frankly doesn’t trust. How do you give everyone a fair shake while giving the viewer a sense that what we’re seeing, the impression we’re getting, is accurate?
Goodman: First of all, many, many people from the Bush administration just to set the record straight, are not pro-Trumpers. There are many out in front, from [Bush speechwriter] David Frum and others, like [chief speechwriter and adviser] Michael Gerson, who have become prominent anti-Trumpers. Just to be clear. Even those though who have, like Ari [Fleischer] and others who have become outspoken advocates for this administration, you know, it’s our job to assess what they tell us in the context of our story.
It’s not that they’re permanently tainted so that they can’t ever appear. Even if we agree with you – and we’re not saying that we do, but even if we agree with you that they’ve been lying since then, our job is to understand: are they telling us candidly what they believe in the context of our story? We have gone to extreme lengths to vet what they’ve said, to put it into our own kind of evaluative process to make sure that it’s accurate. And we exclude lots of stuff from the film that they’ve told us or anybody has told us that we think is either unintentionally or intentionally inaccurate. But when they come to us with good intentions and an open heart and an open mind to tell us what they believe, and we believe this is what they believe, then it’s very valuable to have their insights. These were the people that were there. Nobody else can tell the story other than these folks.
Ephron: That’s the key point, is that they don’t feel that they were lying. So many of them don’t feel that they were being dishonest. And they are able to reflect on mistakes they made and the things that went wrong. But I believe them –
Goodman: For the most part, I mean, you think for example, that Cheney may have intentionally lied.
Ephron: Cheney, exactly.
Goodman: And Scooter Libby, and his folks.
Ephron: Sure. And they’ll make that distinction between Cheney and the president. But I do not think that they think they were lying. And that, as Barak said, there’s a difference between deception and self-deception.
So how are you able to bring that across? What do you feel that you are able to do in making this film to ensure that what you’re presenting and what we’re seeing is what you as filmmakers believe to be as close to the truth as possible?
Goodman: In the film are many, many voices from outside the administration – journalists, historians – many of whom contradict or disagree with the folks within the administration. We have those debates in the film. We let those debates happen . . . but we coalesce around a more or less coherent story. It’s not just random disagreement. We have come to a conclusion about the Bush administration and the extent to which they lied, the extent which they lied to themselves. And that’s more or less the consensus that’s agreed upon by the folks outside or critiquing and even some of the people inside. We have very candid admissions from people in the administration who are willing to cop to lots of mistakes.
This is not a whitewash. They understand that mistakes were made, they understand that they were wrong about things. It’s the why. That’s the key. Why were they wrong? Why did this mistake happen? That’s the key question. And they’re willing to engage on that question. So I think it’s a coherent but spacious enough argument to let lots of different points of view have some purchase in the film.
Ephron: Yeah, we have this sort of front row seat of witnesses to this history, participants of this history. And then we have a whole chorus of journalists who were there reporting on this as it unfolded, biographers who have the, the passage of time to look back and see what was really going on at these moments.
So I think it’s a way of keeping the film honest. It sort of checks them and it checks us.
There are a lot of different films that have been made and have yet to be made about this presidency and its impact on media, journalism, and how journalists interact with the White House and the administration’s politics. Because of that, I suspect there may be people are going to come to this particular biographical treatment with some expectation that you will address this or analyze it. You’ve partially spoken to this earlier with our “Frontline” comparison, but in this respect, what are you hoping that viewer will take from this? Are you hoping that people will maybe reassess their impressions of George W. Bush and his presidency?
Goodman: Mark Samuels, the executive producer of “American Experience,” has always said to us vis-a-vis these presidential biographies, to stay as close to the oval office as you can. Stay close to the president. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re not trying to analyze all the myriad subjects that might come out of a presidency, particularly this presidency, which was so eventful. We want to understand the man. And by understanding the man, we understand the office for the man so far. That’s what we try to do.
Now with this president that’s particularly difficult because he was such a delegator and there were other people in his administration who had such huge impact and influence, with Dick Cheney foremost among them. So occasionally your camera has to wander away from the Oval Office to these other folks.
But we always tried to get back to Bush: What was he thinking? Why was he thinking that? That’s what our mission is. It’s not to analyze press or the intelligence services or the whatever. It’s [to] stay close to the man. And so the answer to your question, is we hope for a deeper, more nuanced, more complex understanding of Bush. He’s not a yahoo from Texas. He’s not a genius. He’s somewhere in the middle. And it’s in that middle that we hope people will alight and see a human being who was, we think, a decent, honorable human being who was led astray by various forces. And that’s a great story. That’s the story we want to tell.
Ephron: He’s so oft caricatured. He’s sort of dehumanized by all the looks at who he was. For me, he was at that big desk for so many pivotal moments in our country’s history. So many of the forces he put in motion are still playing out today. And I don’t really think there has been a fair look at who he was and an attempt to understand that the human being that he was. That’s my goal, is that people will look at him and see something more complex than before.
“American Experience: George W. Bush” debuts Monday, May 4 & Tuesday, May 5 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS member stations, and online at PBS.org.