The PBS documentary — one in a series of presidential profiles under the American Experience banner — begins on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the defining moment for the president less than a year in office. That event, and the prosecution of the war that followed, ultimately consumed Bush, who came into office with a clear domestic agenda but less engagement in foreign affairs.
The producers then segue to Bush’s early life, born into a privileged family, and known to spend his 20s “drinking, carousing and having fun,” as Texas journalist Wayne Slater puts it.
Most of the biographical information sheds relatively little light on Bush as a person, other than the fairly well-worn questions about his relationship with his father, having “felt overlooked and underappreciated” when George H.W. Bush was elected president and the focus on the next bearer of the family name with serious political aspirations shifted to brother Jeb.
Similarly, when Bush won a second term — a form of vindication after the divisive, controversial outcome of the 2000 election — the narration notes that he “took a journey from the White House to the Capitol that his father had been denied.”
For anyone who followed the reporting about the Iraq war, most of “George W. Bush” plays mostly like a rehash, despite interviews with many key figures who worked in the Bush administration, including chiefs of staff Andy Card and Joshua Bolten, press secretary Ari Fleischer, Rove and others.
It’s not really news, for example, that Vice President Dick Cheney wielded disproportionate influence by appealing to Bush’s cowboy instincts, “consequences be damned,” as journalist Michael Isikoff says. Nor is it a surprise to hear aides describe Bush’s gift for retail politics, in contrast to the malapropisms and misstatements that provided fodder for latenight comics.
Indeed, there has been some debate about Bush’s legacy in the broader context of the Obama and Trump presidencies, a potentially fertile area that goes unexplored.
Journalist Robert Draper sums up Bush and the various contradictions that surrounded his time in office — from the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina to the successful campaign against HIV in Africa — by saying, “The Bush presidency is gonna be a bit of a riddle for historians.”
“George W. Bush” lays out plenty of details regarding that riddle, in sober and stately fashion. Yet even after four hours, the documentary doesn’t feel as if it has advanced the ball much in terms of deciphered it.
“George W. Bush” will air May 4-5 at 9 p.m. on PBS.