American Experience: George H.W. Bush

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9-11 p.m. Monday, May 5, and 9-10:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6

WNEW New York

It’s been more than 15 years since George H.W. Bush left the White House, long enough to gain perspective on his presidency. The verdict, according to Austin Hoyt, writer-director of PBS’ “American Experience: George H.W. Bush,” is that the elder Bush might be one of the least appreciated and unluckiest of all commanders in chief.

How else to account for his 87% approval rating following the Gulf War in early 1991 — a record for any president — and his failure to win re-election the following year?

Hoyt tells of a chief executive who at heart was a fiscal conservative, a social progressive and uncommonly unlucky. An example: He was harshly criticized for not finishing the job when he left Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq. It wasn’t until his son moved into the Oval Office that the wisdom of Dad’s decision became clear.

In this well-organized telling of Bush’s story, Hoyt diminishes the legacy of President Reagan, who preceded Bush. He claims that Reagan’s economic policies would have been even more disastrous and the breakup of the Soviet Union might have gone poorly if Bush had not cleaned up after him. That meant bailing out savings and loans and passing new taxes (on the rich), both of which were politically costly.

Hoyt provides frequent examples that, under the facade of his public persona, Bush is an emotional man. He had been brought up not to show it or even to claim credit for his accomplishments — modesty that is antithetical to politics and campaigns.

At the same time, Hoyt lets Bush off easy for putting his principles aside (and his manhood in trust, as cartoonist Garry Trudeau had it) for the sake of political expedience. By opposing abortion to appease the right wing, by his loyalty to President Nixon even as Watergate evidence mounted and by looking the other way when political stink bomb thrower Lee Atwater linked Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis with murderer Willie Horton, Bush was no profile in courage.

In any case, Hoyt offers a clear perspective of a period and an individual who, at least in several respects, deserved a better rep than he got.

Production company: Austin Hoyt Prods.
Director-writer: Austin Hoyt.
Producers: Austin Hoyt, Callie Taintor Wiser.
Editors: Bernice Schneider, Jon Neuburger.
Director of photography: Stephen McCarthy.
Composer: Michael Bacon.
Narrator: David Ogden Stiers.


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