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NPR Arts & Life

Documentary Explores Evolving Perceptions Of George W. Bush

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Is President George W. Bush's place in history being reappraised? He warned about pandemics. He's lauded, especially in Africa, for saving millions in the fight against AIDS. He has a special friendship with the Obamas. But his decision to invade Iraq has been called the worst single mistake made in the history of our country by President Donald Trump and has earned enduring criticism around the world.

Barak Goodman's new American Experience documentary on PBS shows a critical moment when George W. Bush spoke to emergency workers in the ruins of the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE W. BUSH")

GEORGE W BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people...

(CHEERING)

BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(CHEERING)

SIMON: Barak Goodman, the award-winning filmmaker, joins us from Brooklyn. Mr. Goodman, thanks so much for being with us.

BARAK GOODMAN: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: That moment we just heard - George W. Bush was just nine months into his presidency. This is a person who, although he inspired affection, had spent most of his life, until his 40s, really underwhelming people, didn't he?

GOODMAN: He absolutely did. Yeah. He was hooked on alcohol. He was the sort of black sheep of the family until around the age of 40, when he had a really sort of sudden transformation.

SIMON: And that's when he beat drinking.

GOODMAN: He beat drinking. And he did it just overnight. I mean, he really displayed a level of discipline and decisiveness that people don't often attribute to George W. Bush but was very much part of his character. He was able to marshal this, you know, quite a bit of inner strength. And this was an example. He just - he stopped cold.

SIMON: The film, as I guess it has to, opens with the events of September 11. How do you think that changed his presidency and him?

GOODMAN: It was totally defining of his presidency. I mean, I think it would've been hard for any president to rise to that challenge. But frankly, Bush was unprepared to be president in general. He was certainly unprepared for a foreign policy crisis like this one. And it became the linchpin of his entire presidency, both for good and mostly for bad. But we have to appraise his presidency in light of that extraordinary moment, which was unprecedented, really, in American history.

SIMON: And without endorsing any conspiracy theories, did he feel that he'd failed the American people somehow after that attack?

GOODMAN: It did play a role. I think it did plague him. He had been warned. There were warnings in his briefings all through the summer. And no one took them particularly seriously. So there was a part of George W. Bush that did feel guilty. And I think this actually speaks to his character. He was an enormously compassionate man. And the caricature of Bush that we've taken from all those years is sort of guy who is both a kind of back-slapping, redneck, kind of not particularly astute man. But that really wasn't the defining characteristic of Bush. I think that the defining characteristic was compassion and a deep empathy for people - not necessarily for alleged terrorists but for the Americans who had died and their families. And it led him astray in some ways. It led him to take actions, I think, that were ill-conceived. But they came out of a place of wanting to make sure it never happened again.

SIMON: One of the questions you raised in this documentary is, did the CIA sell President Bush a bill of goods about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Or did they simply sell the president what they knew he wanted to buy?

GOODMAN: I think there was a lot of self-deception going on. So I think there were people - I wouldn't attribute the fault to the CIA rank and file. There were plenty of people within the CIA who were raising red flags. But the leadership of the CIA, George Tenet, certainly Dick Cheney - above all - and Dick Cheney's deputy, Scooter Libby, Donald Rumsfeld - these people siloed intelligence. They did bring to the president cherry-picked intelligence in order to convince him. But they were pushing against an open door. He was already inclined to go into Iraq for many, many reasons, some of which had to do with his own father and his own relationship with his father. But, you know, it was going to be hard to stop this momentum no matter what.

There was such emotion around this. There was such fear around this. There were good reasons to suspect that Iraq did have a weapons program. And Bush was not the kind of president who dug into the details and assessed both sides and was comfortable in the gray. He was a black-and-white guy. And this seemed like a black-and-white decision. And once he'd made it, he wasn't going to back down from it.

SIMON: I have to ask you this. Do you believe that President Bush was guilty of war crimes?

GOODMAN: That's a really hard question to answer. I think that the torture of detainees was a war crime. Does that - the legal culpability extend to the president? I don't know the legalities of that. He would say, to this day, I'm sure, that it didn't amount to torture. I think that argument falls apart immediately. And I don't think it could stand up in a court of law if it ever got that far.

SIMON: Even if there is a Republican convention this year, he certainly won't be invited. Candidates for office in his own party don't seek his endorsement. The current Republican president ridicules him. Is there, however, a reappraisal due of his place in history for some of his policies?

GOODMAN: I absolutely think there is. I think there's a reappraisal of the man himself. He's a very bright man. He's a man who does delegate and isn't very interested in policy details. But he's certainly not alone in that as president. But he was not someone who was pushed around by the people around him, a puppet on a string, which is, I think, what a lot of people have decided about him. And I think that needs to be reappraisal.

And I also think people need to remember - you alluded to it, Scott - the wonderful work he did to save millions of lives in Africa. He also, with the surge, helped turn the tide of war in Iraq. And in the end, he helped save this country from depression when the financial scandal hit. There are positives on the ledger. By that point in his presidency, it was too late. And his legacy had been written by that point. But we have to remember those positives, as well. So I think it's a much more mixed bag than it was at the time he left office.

SIMON: Barak Goodman - his two-part American Experience "George W. Bush" airs on PBS stations this Monday and Tuesday, May 4 and 5. Thank you so much for being with us.

GOODMAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.