The hardest part of covering the White House is portraying the banality of the human being presiding at the heart of the sprawling executive branch of American government. In the case of George W. Bush, the caricature of incompetence accepted by much of the country by the end of his second term obscured as much about the daily work of the president as the adulation of his supporters had in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
So there was reason to hope that the roll-out of Bush’s memoirs, “Decision Points,” would begin to reconstruct some of the more lifelike elements of his presidency. What debates had actually unfolded before 9/11 between the President and his advisors as to the nature of the al Qaeda threat? How had Bush become convinced that going to war in Iraq in March 2003 was so urgent that it precluded pursuing three more months of diplomacy or the apparent possibility of forcing Saddam Hussein into exile? How had Bush decided to overturn generations of American opposition to torture to embrace waterboarding? What personal considerations led Bush to move so slowly after Katrina engulfed New Orleans?
Bush spent plenty of time on the book, and plenty of time planning the roll out. He assembled a team of advisors from his White House days, his publishers at Crown and his current office to script the unveiling. “The president was not short of a lot of good options from all of the networks, and from multiple anchors at the networks,” said Dana Perino, Bush’s last press secretary who was one of those Bush consulted on the plan. “NBC had a compelling package that included a prime-time hour and promotions, as well as Today Show appearances, that was compelling; however, just as important was the president’s desire to have a conversation, not a debate,” Perino said.
In the end, the “candid conversation with Matt Lauer”, as the hour-long prime time interview Monday evening was billed, was something more of a high-production-value index than a detailed look inside the mechanics of the Bush presidency. Against an innocuous grey back-drop Bush and Lauer spent most of the conversation at a gleaming wood table with two indistinguishable leatherbound books on one end, bracketed by somber but reassuring string chords at the start and finish of the segments. Lauer touched all the nerves, but with the air of a doctor informing a sufficiently etherized patient that he’d feel a little pressure.
And Bush pushed back. When Lauer asked about waterboarding, the interrogation technique that the U.S. government, Congress and the courts had all concluded constituted torture, Bush said he had approved the technique and that “It was the right thing to do.” When Lauer asked if that meant Bush thought it was OK for foreign countries to waterboard captured Americans, Bush said, “All I ask is that people read the book.”
The interview did bring back the personal atmospherics of the presidency. There was the empathetic side of Bush, the one that made him an effective retail politician, as he teared up talking about his relationship with his father and mother. There was the too-easy dismissal of serious issues, as when he defended against the waterboarding decision by saying he did it “’cause the lawyers said it was legal.” And most of all there was the perpetual, uncomfortable coexistence of confidence and defensiveness that ended up giving the country the impression that he had been in over his head all along.
But that didn’t help with the facts. Bush has always said it will take years for history to judge his presidency. Maybe the book itself will provide some of the detail that can help make the two terms less of a caricature. But it’s safe to say NBC’s review of Bush’s presidency won’t move the needle much. What it did do is remind viewers of the particular brand of defensive patriotism Bush embodied. “I hope I’m judged a success,” Bush said at the end of the show, “I’m comfortable knowing I gave it my all, and I love America and it was an honor to serve.”