Media’s closed book on Bush
Nobody expected that George W. Bush’s book, “Decision Points,” was going to compare with the memoirs of Ulysses Grant. As expected, book reviewers found it wanting as a literary work.
But still, every book by an ex-president is seen as an opportunity for legacy-polishing, and the press is most accommodating.
In the summer of 2004, the networks celebrated Bill Clinton’s memoir as a momentous news event. They even employed a ridiculous adjective for the man — “candid.”
So how would they react to W?
Bush knew that journalists would not rush to embrace his book. He had arranged to be interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer for an hourlong prime-time interview special, and liberals weren’t impressed. It wasn’t going to be confrontational enough. The New York Times sniffed that “‘Lauer/Bush’ is not likely to join ‘Frost/Nixon’ in the public imagination.”
So where is the Gray Lady to whine when Lauer interviews President Obamaâ¢ During those love fests, Lauer sounds more like “Access Hollywood” than “Meet the Press.”
Lauer threw some hardballs at Bush, most notably suggesting that it was ill-advised for Bush to suggest the worst moment in his presidency occurred when rapper Kanye West shouted during an NBC telethon that Bush didn’t care about black people. Lauer toed the liberal line: “You’re not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You’re saying it was when someone insulted you because of that.”
If this is the best he could do, Lauer never laid a glove.
But the other two networks worked hard to ignore the Bush book’s debut. Was it because NBC won the bidding war, such as it wasâ¢ CBS pretty much waited until it could air its own interview, in which reporter Jim Axelrod also re-hammered Bush on Hurricane Katrina: “‘Failure to act’ could have been the subtitle of the chapter on Hurricane Katrina. … There was a common feeling that after Katrina, you could never fully regain the trust of the American people.”
Whether it was competitive petulance or political bias, ABC utterly ignored the president’s memoir. Then on Nov. 14, “This Week” briefly highlighted it — only to dismiss it as comical, with a clip from David Letterman mocking Bush’s book, stating that President Grant’s memoirs told the story of life-and-death principles during the Civil War while Bush’s story focused on how “I’m drunk at the dinner table.”
Bush’s candor about his drinking problem also spurred mockery on the Nov. 13 edition of the National Public Radio game show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Host Peter Sagal conducted an “interview” with clips from the audiobook, asking Bush about his first week as president, and then running sound of Bush recounting what he drank on every weeknight.
Would NPR ever consider cracking these kinds of jokes about Ted Kennedy, hailed for his posthumous memoir, “True Compass,” as a compassionate hero and a “family man”?
The PBS “NewsHour” picked up on Lauer’s NBC interview on Nov. 9 — and showed only the clips where Bush admitted foul-ups (Saddam’s stash of WMDs, “Mission Accomplished” banners, a delayed federal response to Katrina). Likewise, NPR’s “All Things Considered” picked up Lauer and Bush talking about Iraq and, predictably, how rude Bush was when he had a drinking problem.
At least on PBS, anchor Jim Lehrer asked if it was a myth that Bush was stupid, and historian Julian Zelizer agreed that “this is someone who is intelligent and who was capable and who could be politically skillful at various times.” Zelizer added: “I imagine there will be a bit of a revision, like you had with Ronald Reagan, who originally was thought to be not very intelligent, more an actor than a policymaker. But the more we learned, we learned there was someone pretty cunning in the White House.”
A better question: Just which institution was it that created these myths about Reagan and Bush?
L. Brent Bozell III is president of the Media Research Center.