Friday, June 12, 2015

A review of PBS's movie "George H. W. Bush"



"My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no. And they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.' "

- Presidential nominee George H. W. Bush, in a speech at the Republican National Convention on 18 August 1988


George H. W. Bush

Surprisingly sympathetic

PBS made a three-hour documentary about the life of the first Bush president, George H. W. Bush (not to be confused with his similarly-named former-president son). The film was surprisingly sympathetic to him, perhaps because his moderate economic Republicanism was more agreeable to the liberal PBS filmmakers than the conservative economic Republicanism of his predecessor Ronald Reagan, or his son George W. Bush.


US fighter wing during Desert Storm, 1991



The Persian Gulf War

The film was mostly sympathetic with his foreign policy, though their praise of how he handled the first Persian Gulf War was in terms that make liberals feel warm and fuzzy (like "multilateral"), rather than in terms that galvanize foreign-policy conservatives like Mr. Bush (like "strong" and "tough"). I agree completely with their praise of the war's rapid conclusion and the president's success in getting allies for it, although I suspect my praise of it (and Mr. Bush's) is based on quite different reasons than that of the liberal filmmakers.


Mikhail Gorbachev, dictator of Soviet Russia

The end of the Cold War

PBS also repeats its earlier Reagan documentary's mistake of giving Mikhail Gorbachev partial credit for the end of the Cold War, and their praise of Bush's role in this is falsely attributed to what I call "warm-and-fuzzy" liberal diplomacy, rather than to the tough conservative diplomacy that this Bush success really came from. (For my response to their partially crediting Mikhail Gorbachev for ending the Cold War, see my post about Reagan's "Star Wars" program, which discusses Mr. Reagan's role in bringing down the Wall.)


Ronald Reagan

"Read my lips: No new taxes"

I had to break with the filmmakers in their approval of many of his economic policies, particularly his breaking of the "read my lips: no new taxes" pledge, and their assertion that these policies changed the Reagan legacy is not accurate, since they were not a part of the Reagan legacy - they were just the first Bush president's legacy. This was a cleverly subtle attempt on their part to say that these comparatively leftist policies are a part of the popular Reagan's legacy, and influence conservatives to abandon the true Reagan legacy that the filmmakers so despise. But I give PBS great credit for sympathetically portraying Bush's experiences as a carrier fighter pilot in World War II, for acknowledging Mr. Bush's genuine war hero status, and for portraying him as the genuinely nice guy that he is.


George H. W. Bush during World War II,
as carrier fighter pilot in the Pacific

The timing of this film

The main weakness of the film is that the history it portrays is too recent to allow for much effective hindsight. Since their subject was (and is) living, it is hard to measure his true legacy, and it was much harder when this film was released in August 2008, because his son then had three months remaining as President of the United States, which made objectivity difficult. But this was a good film that made excellent use of interviews with former members of his administration, Margaret Thatcher, his daughter Doro, his son Jeb, his wife Barbara, and the subject himself (though the interviews with him were used as voiceovers for other footage instead of shown visually). Not surprisingly, there were no interviews with his then-president son.


Son George W. Bush, also elected president

Comparisons with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush

Personally, I prefer the presidency of his son and his predecessor Mr. Reagan, and I didn't always agree with the filmmakers; but I considered this an excellent overview of the first Bush president's life and presidency despite the weaknesses described. Time will allow for more effective hindsight about his legacy.


"It is clear to me ... that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement and mandatory program reform, tax revenue increases, growth incentives, discretionary spending reductions, orderly reductions in defense expenditures and budget process reform, to assure that any bipartisan agreement is enforceable and that the deficit problem is brought under responsible control."

- George H. W. Bush, in a statement for the press on 27 June 1990

DVD at Amazon

Can be viewed online at PBS website

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Ronald Reagan movie

Cold War miniseries

The fall of the Wall

Bill Clinton movie

Part of a series about
The Presidents

George Washington 1789-1797
John Adams 1797-1801
Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
James Madison 1809-1817
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829
Andrew Jackson 1829-1837
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909
Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945
Harry Truman 1945-1953
Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969
Richard Nixon 1969-1974
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
Ronald Reagan 1981-1989
George H. W. Bush 1989-1993
Bill Clinton 1993-2001


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