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"The Bush presidency is going to be a bit of a riddle for historians," journalist Robert Draper said in a new PBS doc that aired this week

By Sean Neumann
May 06, 2020 10:55 AM
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George W. Bush
President George W. Bush in November 2005
| Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

When George W. Bush addressed the media for the final time as president, in January 2009, he summed up his eight years in office with a joke: "Things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way."

And how. Bush's two-term presidency ended in the shadow of the crises — at home and abroad — that began after he was sworn in, including the early stages of the Great Recession, the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.

Some were out of his control; some were sparked by his administration. Many (or most) were some difficult combination of the two. How Bush faced these problems and where his government failed in addressing them, in the eyes of many Americans, came to define his years as commander-in-chief.

Bush's presidency is the focus of a new two-part American Experience documentary on PBS. The second half, exploring the 43rd president's tumultuous second term, aired Tuesday night.

"The Bush presidency is going to be a bit of a riddle for historians," journalist Robert Draper said in Tuesday's episode. "He's going to be judged as a guy who seemed very simple but in fact was a very complicated man."

The documentary's first installment, which aired Monday night, told the story of Bush's rise from a wealthy and privileged Texas playboy to becoming the president of the United States, with an optimism that gave off an aura of being a "people person" who saw the good over the bad.

But in its Tuesday episode, American Experience took a deeper look at the consequences of Bush's attitude as the leader of the free world and how dominoes began to fall during his second term.

The second half picked up with the U.S.'s entanglement in Iraq growing deeper as the Bush administration faced both natural and financial disasters at home, such as Hurricane Katrina's deadly landfall in 2005 and the 2007-2008 housing crisis.

"That period, in the days and weeks after Katrina, were as challenging as anything in the entire presidency," Dan Bartlett, a counselor to the president, said in the documentary.

George W. Bush Ground Zero 9/11
President George W. Bush (left) stands with retired firefighter Bob Beckwith and addresses first responders at Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001
| Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty
President Bush and His Dad Former President Bush at Inauguration
President George W. Bush (left) and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, at the 43rd president's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2001.
| Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty

Bush faced severe backlash for the federal government's slow response to the disaster in New Orleans, which the documentary depicts in photos, interviews and clips from local officials at the time, like then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin who blasted the administration for not stepping in sooner and said it was "too late."

The fumbled response also led to Kanye West's infamous criticism: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Bush has since called West's comment a low point of his presidency and reporters said in the new documentary that the president understood the severity of the sentiment against him as it happened.

"George Bush actually said that at one point that Katrina was worse on his presidency than the Iraq war had been because what it exposed was complete incompetence," journalist Elisabeth Bumiller said on American Experience.

The documentary looked at both Bush's verbal and symbolic gaffes, including moments when his administration jumped the gun on labeling its efforts a success: from hanging a "Mission Accomplished" banner in 2003, when the Iraq conflict was far from over, to congratulating FEMA on a job-well done as hundreds of thousands in New Orleans still faced the fallout from Katrina.

Defending him, Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter, said on American Experience that "his natural tendency is to build people up as they're confronting crisis. That's what he normally does. But [Katrina] was a case where a little bit more patience would've been justified."

Patience wasn't in the cards for Bush when the 2008 housing crisis hit, according to the documentary.

In spite of his conservative economic beliefs, Bush allowed the federal government to step in and bailout companies whose decisions led to the market's collapse as the president prepared to hand over the White House to Barack Obama.

"September and October of 2008 were really, I thought, the scariest of the entire Bush administration," Joshua Bolten, Bush's former chief of staff, says. "9/11 was a horrible and, of course, by far the most devastating moment during the entire eight years of that presidency. But from the standpoint of an ongoing threat that everybody in government knew that we had to do something about — the financial crisis — it was really scary."

The Bush administration settled on a $700 billion bailout that Bolten says was "antithetical to everything that Republicans generally and President Bush, in particular, believed in."

George W. Bush Ground Zero 9/11
George W. Bush (center) speaks to the media as he tours Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001.
| Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty

Bush's presidency, like every administration before his, was plagued with the unexpected. Some of them were history-making, however.

As the documentary lays out: Nine months into his time in office, the country was hit by the deadliest terror attack in its history. In the middle of his tenure, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans and questioned his capability to manage ongoing emergencies at home. And in the final months of his presidency, a financial crisis that threatened to be worse than the Great Depression ravaged the country's economy and forced Bush to make drastic decisions.

In these moments, American Experience suggests, the U.S. was steered through an obstacle course of crisis by a political heir whose own life lacked direction until he was 40 and was later defined by the eight years he spent in the White House.

In a particular irony, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were the toughest moments of Bush's presidency but, in their wake, the country rallied around him in what would prove to be rare bipartisan approval.

(In the years since he left office, as he's retreated from politics, Bush, now 73, has seen his reputation rebound as he's focused on more personal projects such as helping wounded veterans.)

"That's a moment when I think every American was proud of George W. Bush," journalist Eugene Robinson said at one point in American Experience. "He had a measure of support that no president could ever dream of and, in a sense, he squandered it."