‘George W. Bush’: Stunning documentary on worst American president (until now)
George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush

Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron’s new PBS documentary George W. Bush is an excellent treatment of 43rd U.S. President George W. Bush. The two-part documentary totaling close to four viewing hours provides an overview of Bush’s rise to power through his two terms in office (2001-09).

The film exhaustively puts to rest the current Republican-led campaign to rehabilitate Bush’s presidency. An array of Bush Administration officials, political analysts and operatives, reporters, apologists, proponents, opponents, and other witnesses to history describe the time in detail. It is not a pretty picture!

The work is strongest in its meticulous coverage of the devastating, illegal, murderous Afghan and Iraqi wars. It is weakest in its too easy acceptance of Bush as a likable man of character, despite his failed terms in office.

Goodman and Ephron chronologically outline the trajectory of George Bush’s life. They are overly generous by exclusion. Unfortunately, they ignore his formative influences of wealth and privilege and the unsavory Bush family background. They fail to mention that the Bush family fortunes were built on the misery of others, from their role as slave traders and owners to their partnership in building the Nazi regime in Germany.

They show how George W. Bush, after many business failures, came of age when he used family money and friends to purchase the Texas Rangers baseball team. But again, they leave part of the picture out. Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times describes that part in how good old baseball-loving George “bullied and misled the city (Dallas) into raising taxes to build a $200 million stadium that in effect would be handed over to the Rangers. As part of the deal, the city would even confiscate land from private owners so that the Rangers could engage in real estate speculation.”

An even more serious part of the family legacy is also not even mentioned. The Bush family, through their family-owned bank, the Union Banking Corporation, continued to do business with and assist Nazi Germany in its rise, and even after WWII had been declared and the U.S. had entered the war. In October 1942, the U.S. government seized the Bush bank under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Many thought Bush family members should have been tried and jailed. But somehow, mysteriously, charges were not pursued.

We are shown, however, that poor W. (Dubya) suffered in comparison to his father, George H.W. Bush, in education, business, and politics. From his early wastrel years (“a real asshole when he drank”—and he spent much time drunk) through serial business failures, those around him came to expect little of him.

George profited from these low expectations. From his drug and alcohol young adulthood through his Vietnam combat avoidance, Bush seized on family political fortunes and deep pockets to pave his path from Congress through the Texas Statehouse and the presidency. He forged a strategic partnership allowing the intellectually far sharper Vice President Dick Cheney to dictate most of his Presidential duties.

This dereliction of duty led to Bush knowingly ignoring intelligence reports indicating that major terrorist attacks were imminent. When the 9/11 attacks did come, George Bush made mistake after mistake. His wars against Iraq and Afghanistan repeatedly violated international and U.S. laws. He followed up easy military victories with disastrous nation-building efforts. He pushed tortures in Black Op sites scattered around the world grievously injuring the U.S. reputation and greatly aiding terrorist recruiting around the world.

The filmmakers catalog with little comment Bush’s rightwing domestic political agenda, his tax cuts to benefit the very rich, the educational reform which sought to push religion in and science out of public schools, his out-of-control administration’s illegal wielding of power. He tried to sell these policies by repeatedly lying and covering up his misdeeds. Although Bush’s Great Recession of 2008 has been well documented in other venues, this film could easily have devoted a bit more time to showing how Bush’s characteristic inattention to his job aided and abetted the financial crisis. The film does a better job in its treatment of yet another Bush fiasco, the mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

George W. Bush the movie does a great service in painstakingly highlighting this disastrous presidency. It at least punctures the myth of genial George, the goodnatured if slightly flawed Mr. Nice Guy. His presidency deeply wounded the United States, its victims left without justice or remedy. From the time he bullied kids in private school, attended Yale thanks to undeserved legacy admission, through his drug-addled twenties, his smear-the-opponents political campaigns against earnest Al Gore and war hero John Kerry, through his murderous, tortuous law-violating wars and racist handling of the poor victims of Hurricane Katrina, all the way to his post-presidency settlement in a whites-only, gated community for rich Texans, George Bush has traded on an unearned reputation of good intent. Hopefully, this illuminating, though not quite exhaustive film settles that misapprehension definitively.

George W. Bush premieres Monday and Tuesday, May 4-5, from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on “American Experience” on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

The trailer can be seen here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!