In CNN’s ‘The Bush Years,’ decency and duty mask our national sins

George H.W. Bush on Dec. 18, 1970, shortly after he was appointed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)

Having just crashed his bomber into the Pacific, George H. W. Bush floats toward a Japanese island called Chichijima, where he expects to be detained and tortured. Instead, a U.S. submarine comes by and pulls him out of the sea.

“I wonder if I could have done something different,” Mr. Bush said in 2003, recalling his military service during World War II. “Why me? Why am I blessed? Why am I still alive? That has plagued me.” In an interview for “The Bush Years: Family, Duty, Power,” the six-part docuseries airing on CNN, the former secretary of state Colin Powell claims this incident drove Mr. Bush into public service.

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We Americans eat myths for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert—and in “The Bush Years,” CNN adds a thick layer of glaze to the Bush legacy. The show opens with a staticky, black-and-white, James Bond-ish title sequence, replete with furrowed brows and oil rigs. The clan is presented as a set of WASPy, earthier Kennedys, “one extraordinary family, fueled by ambition, driven by duty.”

We Americans eat myths for breakfast, lunch and dinner—and in “The Bush Years,” CNN adds a thick layer of glaze to the Bush legacy.

Maybe in the Trump era, “duty” is a more appealing concept than ever. It is apparent from watching the series that George H. W. Bush was more tactful and level-headed than President Trump. He also called for a “kinder, gentler nation,” signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Immigration Act of 1990, which expanded access and opportunity in the United States for millions of citizens and foreign workers. But as we come to grips with a national history of violence, greed and racialized privilege, this fable of noblesse oblige rings hollow.

First comes the Texan origin story. “He just couldn’t bring himself to go to Wall Street,” says his brother, a bow-tied Jonathan Bush, who is one of the series’ primary interview subjects. “He wanted to go off and do something on the frontier.” So he decamps to the flatlands of Texas, where he and his wife, Barbara, live in a duplex next to a mother and daughter, who, we are told, happen to be sex workers. Despite their Greenwich, Conn., pedigree, the Bushes are “making it on our own” out West.

Nothing captures the family’s privilege more than the footage in Episode 1 of Prescott Bush, George’s father, being sworn into the Senate next to John F. Kennedy. President Eisenhower even places Prescott Bush on a list of possible successors. Joe McCarthy, Prescott’s foe in the Senate, is presented as a Trumpian figure who will teach H. W. to stand up to bullies.

As we come to grips with a national history of violence, greed and racialized privilege, this fable of noblesse oblige rings hollow.

In another eyebrow-raising moment, Barbara Pierce Bush, the daughter of George W. Bush, says of her grandfather’s ascension to the presidency: “When our grandfather became president, I asked my friend when her grandfather’s inauguration would be. I thought that everyone’s grandfather had one.”

As the historian Jeffrey Engel remarks in the documentary, Mr. Bush relished his proximity to power; he loved being in the same room as Mao Zedong, for instance. And he stayed loyal to Richard Nixon for longer than most. “When he says, ‘I had no knowledge of Watergate,’ I believe him,” H. W. told his brother Jonathan.

George W. Bush receives a sympathetic portrayal in the series. Described as “kind of all over the place” in his youth, W. burns like a “Roman candle,” to quote an article by the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. He goes into the Texas national guard to gain military experience, a strategy, some say, to avoid having to serve in Vietnam. Unlike his father, he is a ne’er-do-well, a disciple of “beers, blended drinks and barbecues.” Under pressure to live up to his father’s legacy, he gets religion and transforms his life, giving up drinking at age 40. Running for high office, he rises to the occasion, according to the series, beholden to ambition and, supposedly, duty.

Decency and “duty” can be hard to parse—abstractions applied to people who talk pretty and use summer as a verb.

But decency and “duty” can be hard to parse—abstractions applied to people who talk pretty and use summer as a verb. The documentary sometimes conflates these qualities with centrism. H. W. was an anti-communist who favored deregulation and birth control. Throughout his career, he triangulates, running for the Senate as a conservative in 1964 to ride the Goldwater wave that never comes and rejecting the Civil Rights Act. It is not until he realizes black veterans are being discriminated against that he voices support for civil rights.

During one of his interviews for the documentary, H. W.’s son Neil Bush says: “My father believed and said that African-American men and women who served their country in Vietnam or any other war deserved to come home and be treated fairly. Simple as that.” It is unfortunate that he did not have this revelation before black people were sent in disproportionate numbers to die in Southeast Asia.

Other times, duty manifests itself in even-handedness and calm. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, H. W. does not strike a triumphant tone. “It would not have been in his character for him to start shouting and screaming,” says Mr. Powell, a comment that comes off as an implicit criticism of the current occupant of the White House. “It’s just not him.”

“The Bush Years” is about the preservation and reproduction of power—and that story is getting kind of old.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, H. W.’s secretary of defense, calls the 41st president’s handling of the post-Cold War era “masterful.”

“He managed to be thoughtful, generous and at the same time understanding of the problem for Gorbachev’s perception,” says Mr. Cheney.

The series provides some critiques of U.S. power, as when the historian Leah Wright Rigeuer talks about the chasm between the U.S. and Iraqi experience of the Gulf War. For the most part, however, U.S. militarism and global dominance are taken as givens. Do prudence, humility and civility mean anything when, ultimately, they are used to enact violence? Does it matter that “the president tosses and turns the night of the [Gulf War] beginning,” as the documentary tells us?

The racist Willie Horton ad is written off as a political tool, with criticism sandwiched between defensive commentary. Mr. Bush’s secretary of state and chief of staff, James Baker, remarks: “George Bush understood that politics was a bloodsport. He was willing to get out there and do what he needed to do by way of going on the offense and that sort of thing when he had to. But he wasn’t particularly comfortable with it.”

We are meant to view one of the most powerful families in U.S. history with sympathy, to understand who and what made them. This is one of the joys of biography, but the CNN documentary veers too far into hagiography. Watching it, I kept thinking of this passage about the Trump inauguration from Emmett Rensin’s review of Hillary Clinton’s 2017 memoir, What Happened:

It is no mistake that the book begins with former presidents of all parties brought together by wariness of the newest member of their club, how they console one another with social offers, how above all they are civil to one another, how more than half of them come from only two families. This is a book about how power preserves and reproduces itself.

“The Bush Years” is also about the preservation and reproduction of power—and that story is getting kind of old.

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J Cosgrove
1 month ago

What are our national sins that are being masked? If our sins are so bad, why do so many people want to come here?
The author says blacks were over represented among the dead in Vietnam. Were they? They were 12.5% of the deaths vs 10.5% of the population. That was due to the disproportionate number of poor drafted. One statistic was that blacks were 13.5% of military age males, another 11.5%. So were they unfairly represented? They represented 8.4% of deaths during the Korean War.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

is also about the preservation and reproduction of power—and that story is getting kind of old.

This is an incredibly ironic article as the author decries the elites but in the series of articles he has written he is all in for governance by the elites. Two recommendations for him to read, Thomas Sowell and Candace Owens.

J. Calpezzo
1 month ago

Also read Uncle Tom and Omarosa

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Thank you for validating my comment. Two other authors one should read/listen to are Jason Riley and Shelby Steele. Here is a recent interview with Jason Riley. https://hvr.co/2FvzGK6 Learn how over a 100 years of black history has been suppressed. For some of Shelby Steele's recent writings/interviews go here https://hvr.co/2HPG7t5

Robert Klahn
3 weeks 4 days ago

As soon as you can tell us who the "Elites" are please do so.

Robert Klahn
3 weeks 4 days ago

Our national sins? How about installing or supporting dictators when it's to the benefit of the US.

How about allowing US corporations to screw over foreign countries?

How about invading Iraq under false pretenses, under complete lies?

How about letting our people pay more for medical care than any other industrial democracy in the world?

How about letting our people die because they cannot afford medical care, letting children die because their parents can't afford medical care?

So many people from the third world would go anyplace they can. Refugees from the Islamic terrorists and dictators are accepted into European countries at a rate compared to the population of the countries far higher than they are here.

Robert Klahn
3 weeks 4 days ago

In the Korean war blacks were less well accepted. In the Vietnam war they were actively recruited. In Korea most units were still segregated, by Vietnam the military was well integrated.

...
"Project 100,000," a Great Society program launched in 1966, attempted to enhance the opportunities of underprivileged youths from poverty-stricken urban areas by offering more lenient military entrance requirements. It largely failed. Although more than 350,000 men enlisted under Project 100,000 during the remainder of the war, 41 percent were African American and 40 percent drew combat assignments. Casualty rates among these soldiers were twice those of other entry categories. Few Project 100,000 inductees received training that would aid their military advancement or create better opportunities for civilian life.

...

African Americans often did supply a disproportionate number of combat troops, a high percentage of whom had voluntarily enlisted. Although they made up less than 10 percent of American men in arms and about 13 percent of the U.S. population between 1961 and 1966, they accounted for almost 20 percent of all combat-related deaths in Vietnam during that period. In 1965 alone African Americans represented almost one-fourth of the Army's killed in action. In 1968 African Americans, who made up roughly 12 percent of Army and Marine total strengths, frequently contributed half the men in front-line combat units, especially in rifle squads and fire teams. Under heavy criticism, Army and Marine commanders worked to lessen black casualties after 1966, and by the end of the conflict, African American combat deaths amounted to approximately 12 percent—more in line with national population figures.

...

African Americans played a major role in Vietnam and, in the process, changed the complexion of the U.S. Armed Forces. Contrary to popular impressions, a large proportion of African American servicemen were well-trained, highly motivated professionals; some 20 received the Medal of Honor, and several became general officers. Despite the likelihood of seeing hazardous duty, they reenlisted at substantially higher rates than whites. In 1964 blacks represented less than 9 percent of all U.S. Armed Forces; by 1976 they made up more than 15 percent of all men in arms. Although the percentage of African American officers doubled between 1964 and 1976, they still accounted for less than 4 percent of the total.

from Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Ed. Spencer C. Tucker. Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Spencer C. Tucker. [NOTE: This three-volume set is the most comprehensive reference work on the Vietnam War. A concise one-volume edition is now available for the general reader.]

Mike Gale
1 month ago

While this article really wants to dispell the myths of The Bush Years or uncover the sins of our nation - which we've had many since our inception - it doesn't deliver on anything specific or new. It seems to be more of a poke or misperceptions of a WASP American family or their perceived power. A family that includes Mexcian American grandchildren, Catholic converts, financial struggle, disabled children and members of the democratic party. Some of the family were upper middle class - others were not. I believe Obama was a great president, but as a nation, we killed a lot of innocent people during his presidency - his children are now privileged- no fault of their own - Our nation is caught up in a lot of sins - sometimes the lesser of two evils. Kennedy, Regan, Johnson, Bush, Ford, Clinton, Bush, Obama were all politicians - who hid many of the sins of our nation. I didn't include Nixon or Trump for obvious reasons. BTW, the Kennedy's were not WASP but Irish Catholics - still a family of privilege. This article wanted to tell us something new but it didn't deliver. Politics, no matter one's background is a dirty business. However dirty our history, we wash it up into something we are proud of. Let's not forget we authorized the use of smallpox to wipe out Native American populations so we could claim God's gift upon our nation's self-determination. The Bush family wasn't perfect but their ideals of tolerance and civility are a refreshing escape from the national nightmare we're experiencing today.

J. Calpezzo
1 month ago

Maybe a sin was HW fawning over King Fahd, his friend, and dragging us deeper into the web of corrupt Middle Eastern politics. Or, as mentioned, approving the racist Willie Horton ad. And denying climate change, an assault on all of Creation, from the beginning to appease his friends in oil.

Joanne Parrilli
1 month ago

Well said—especially the last sentence. Mr. Sanchez’s column seems sincere but reflects the cynicism of a younger person growing up in a Balkanized country.

Joanne Parrilli
1 month ago

Well said—especially the last sentence. Mr. Sanchez’s column seems sincere but reflects the cynicism of a younger person growing up in a Balkanized country.

Robert Klahn
3 weeks 4 days ago

Catholic converts should mean no exploitation of the poor...sorry... no hope there.
Financial struggle? Where?
Members of the Democratic party? Well, they can't ALL be bad.
Mexican American Grandchildren? You do realize that runs the range from nearly pure Native American to nearly pure European, don't you?

Upper middle class? The GHW Bush family was rich. I do not believe any of the sons fell below top 10% of income, nor do I believe any of the sons were honest. The only one with any military service was GWB, and he did not complete his service, leaving a year early, and was AWOL for a year.

Small pox hit the Americas from the early 1600s on. I doubt the Europeans knew much if anything about how it was spread, or what caused it. It hit from Mexico to what is now the US Midwest.

George Herbert Walker Bush and his family were dishonest and dishonorable.

Stanley Kopacz
1 month ago

It's hard to objectively rate any recent presidents now due to the blinding Orange Strobe Light. They all look good in comparison but they weren't good on an absolute scale.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Thank you for your consistency and your efforts to reelect Trump. Everyone should look at http://bit.ly/2WkZ9LT to see the world that is reelecting Trump.

Stanley Kopacz
1 month ago

My statement stands. Trump makes even a pack of incompetent war criminals like the last Bush administration look good. Why do you mock me for stating objective truths?

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

As I said. I thanked you for being consistent. Which you are. Consistency is usually a positive trait. However, behavior that constantly denigrates someone actually has the opposite effect on most. It resonates with those who already feel the same way. Maybe you do not understand the effect you are having. Most likely, there are only a few here that would be affected. But the irony is that you and those who are constantly negative like the author in their own small way are helping reelect Trump.

Robert Klahn
3 weeks 4 days ago

The last time the American people put a Republican in the White House was 1988.

Fred Fastiggi
1 month ago

I admire the Jesuits willingness to listen to diverse opinion but they seem to have an underlying self-hatred that they subtly convey in their editorial policy. If you dig deep, and go back far enough, you'll find enough dirt or imperfections in any politician to besmirch their character. Not sure what demons are torturing the author but he'd have difficulty convincing most objective Americans that America under the Bush family, Regan and Eisenhauer wasn't a more civil, peaceful and prosperous place than under Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama. Don't think the political party has anything to do with it. There were great democrats also for the time they lived in (FDR, Truman and Wilson to name a few) but this national obsession to demonize American culture and history, which was largely shaped by what the author refers to as WASP's, reflects an underlying insecurity and a willingness to blame others for our failures in life. People, families and countries grow and evolve with time, education and experience. This article, and I assume the series, is a bit of a cheap shot presumably hatched from the bandwagon of current progressive elites. It is sad to see Jesuit intellect and resources wasted on the latest flavor of the week.

Robert Klahn
3 weeks 4 days ago

Reagan and Both Bushes jumped the national debt. Reagan and Bush I combined quadrupled it, Bush II just over doubled it. Reagan restored the nation's respect for racism.

In 1959 the poverty rate was 20%, for blacks it was nearer 50%. From Kennedy through LBJ and even into Nixon it declined to 12%, and for blacks to the 20% range.

Reagan and Bush I managed to quadruple the national debt, Bush II just over doubled it. Clinton and Obama had to fight economic disasters they inherited, with Clinton becoming the first president since LBJ to balance a budget, getting 4 in a row, the second longest string in the 20th century. Obama inherited a deficit of about $1.5 trillion and reduced it by 2/3rds.

So, no Republican president since Eisenhower has had a good economic run, and only two Democrats since 1981 did not screw up the economy and the debt.

john andrechak
1 month ago

Did I miss the School Of Americas Death Squads, sent into Central America by both Bushes, Reagan and Carter?

Vince Killoran
1 month ago

Let's see: sexist behavior to Ferraro in '84, Iran-Contra, Willie Horton Ad, Clarence Thomas, Gulf War, NAFTA (along w/Clinton), vetoed civil rights legislation (before being forced to sign a second version), and intensification of the War on Drugs.

Jose Sanchez
1 month ago

Two words for the everlasting legacy of George HW Bush: Clarence Thomas

Phillip Stone
1 month ago

I am not in any way, shape or form American - Yankee, North, South, Latin, Central - and have no opinion as a voter of the various Presidents you argue about.
I am more interested in the question of moral theology, does a tribe, a state, a nation, an empire, a people have an immortal spirit which will face judgement on the last day and be sent to either heaven or hell?

If not, then how on earth is it a real question or issue about one of them sinning?
What is a national sin?
Corollaries follow - how is a nation punished? Is there collective guilt and so some legitimacy for collective punishment?
The old testament has a gold-mine of information about this, is any reader here familiar with an expert and orthodox theologian who deals with these issues?

John Fay
1 month ago

Knew it was a hit piece from the first sentence:

"Having just crashed his bomber into the South Pacific, ..." implies ineptude. Perhaps mentioning he was shot down, resulting in him crashing would have been too heroic. We certainly don't want that.

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