Nobody expected that George W. Bush’s book “Decision Points” was going to compare to 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.” Certain soon-to-be-disgraced news anchors aggressively promoted the 957-page Clinton opus. On “Larry King Live,” Dan Rather obsequiously boasted he’d read Clinton from cover to cover, and “I think it compares very favorably with Ulysses S. Grant's gold standard of presidential autobiographies.”
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 hour-long prime-time interview special, and liberals weren’t impressed. It wasn’t going to be confrontational enough. (It would need to include actual waterboarding to be confrontational enough for these people.) 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 Matt Lauer interviews President Obama? During those lovefests, 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 idiotic 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 was? CBS pretty much waited until it could air its own interview on the 14th, 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.” Blah, blah.
Whether it was competitive petulance or political bias, ABC utterly ignored the president’s memoir. Then on Sunday, November 14, “This Week” briefly highlighted it – only to dismiss it as comical, with a clip from David Letterman mocking Bush’s book, stating that 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 November 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 audio book, asking Bush about his first week as president, and then running sound of Bush recounting what he drank on every week night. “Thursday and Friday were beer-drinking nights.”
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 November 9 – and showed only the clips where Bush admitted foul-ups (Saddam’s stash of WMD, “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 the stupidity of Reagan and Bush?