Television Review

This look at the first Bush is a kinder, gentler view

The 41st president gets a reevaluation in 'George H.W. Bush,' on 'American Experience.' The 41st president gets a reevaluation in "George H.W. Bush," on "American Experience."
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / May 5, 2008

"George H.W. Bush," which airs tonight and tomorrow on WGBH, will be remembered for two things: its effort to rehabilitate the 41st president and the inescapable comparison it invites with his son, George W. Bush, the current president whose approval rating in a recent poll registered 28 percent.

The film is spot-on that Bush senior deserves another look from the American public and better treatment than he has received so far. Despite his craven political behavior and poor domestic record, history should treat him kindly because of his skillful performance on the world stage. What he practiced, unlike his son, was statecraft.

What Bush lacked were political skills. He was utterly ill-equipped to fight Bill Clinton. He was viewed as weak and, at the end of his presidency, clueless about the United States of America. He left the White House with the lowest popular vote of an incumbent president since 1912.

He took defeat gracefully, as expected, much as he did the death of his young daughter Robin from leukemia. (He later wrote a beautiful letter to his children on the need for another girl in the family.)

"George H.W. Bush" was written, directed, and co-produced by Austin Hoyt, the gifted documentarian who has given us excellent works like "Eisenhower," "Reagan," and "Victory in the Pacific." As expected, it provides a sophisticated, linear look at the life of Bush senior.

But it suffers from an overly sunny treatment of Bush. This show needs cold-blooded judgments to balance the warm and fuzzy tone. The embarrassment of his vice president, Dan Quayle, for example, is simply airbrushed out of the picture.

Friendly faces dominate the show: Bush family members and a coterie of former advisers like James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Colin Powell - loyal souls who simply are not going to take shots at their former boss. There are no hard questions tossed.

Much of the program rehashes old material: Andover, Yale, war hero, WASP noblesse oblige. While all of this belongs in a full portrait of the man, it produces yawns today. This program was made for the long run.

It gets interesting when offering historical judgments. Ronald Reagan is credited with bringing down communism, but Hoyt argues persuasively here that it was Bush who sensitively managed the fall itself for the United States. He was no mere asterisk, then, between Reagan and Clinton, as some have claimed, nor was he a creation of Reagan.

This program both seduces us with Bush's inherent kindness and repels with his lack of spine. Hoyt documents all of this by weaving old footage of the man and his family onto the screen.

In Congress, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and denounced the United Nations. (He regained some of himself by voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 in the face of virulent criticism from constituents.) He allowed Baker to run one of the dirtiest campaigns in history to defeat Michael Dukakis. Bush let others sling the mud, but he was responsible for letting it fly.

And yet his fortitude was there too. It was his victory over Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war that earned him an historic 89 percent favorability rating, but it was his sensitive response to the fall of communism that was his great triumph. Hoyt is good here, building tension with the blow-by-blow account of events.

Bush was savaged by a Democrat-controlled Congress for not immediately flying to Berlin to beat his chest in triumph after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But he wouldn't budge because he grasped that such behavior would further humiliate Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and render him more vulnerable to a coup by hardliners. This was great diplomacy.

The man was made for the mid-20th century, when the WASP "Wise Men" like Dean Acheson guided foreign policy. He had candle power in the second half, but his career was, at once, full and thin.

Sam Allis can be reached at

George H. W. Bush

"American Experience"

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-11, p.m. and tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m.

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