The first President George Bush—the one with two middle names—is 83 years old now and isn’t one to give many interviews. And when he does consent to a sit-down, they always seem to be done with an understanding—either explicitly stated or an agreement between gentlemen—that he is not to be uncomfortably probed about his son’s presidency and the seemingly vast foreign policy differences between father and son.
It is probably unfair, then, to blame Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” for conducting a lengthy, exclusive interview with the former President that left every relevant question unasked.
Mr. Wallace’s ultra-deferential sit-down with the 41st President, which was taped at the Bush library in College Station, Texas and aired on Sunday, was presented as the first in a new series of “American Leaders” interviews. Mr. Wallace’s theory, it seemed, was that Mr. Bush’s mere presence on his show would make for compelling television, no matter what he was asked.
And so it was that, after leading off by Mr. Bush how it came to be that his family was so devoted to public service, Mr. Wallace inquired about “the grandfather business.”
“As a grandpa or poppy—which are you?” the host asked.
Actually, the former President replied, he prefers to go by “Gampy.”
Mr. Wallace followed up by asking if Mr. Bush is, in fact, proud of his children and grandchildren.
And so on.
The questioning did eventually turn to weightier matters, though the obvious limitations on subject matter assured that Mr. Bush wouldn’t be pressed to say anything too meaningful.
He was asked about Russia’s slide from democracy and said that Vladimir Putin is not attempting to “rebuild a Soviet Union and have it be an aggressive challenger to the United States of America.” Mr. Bush, of course, played host to Mr. Putin and to the current President Bush at his Kennebunkport compound this summer, a father/son diplomatic double-team virtually unprecedented in American history. Was the former President encouraged or discouraged by Mr. Putin’s visit? And has he had a hand, even informally, in his son’s Russia policy, or any other overseas policies? None of this came up.
But it was during the second segment of the interview, when Mr. Bush offered a tour of the replica Oval Office at his presidential library, that the genteel format proved most frustrating.
Mr. Bush pointed to a phone and recalled the day in 1991 when Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used it to confirm that the Gulf War had ended.
“He picked up the secure phone right there and was on there to Schwarzkopf in about 45 seconds,” Mr. Bush remembered. “‘Get me Schwarzkopf!’ And they got him on there, and they confirmed that it was time to end the battle.”
Mr. Wallace let the reminiscing go at that, but the thinking behind the Bush administration’s decision to end the Gulf War that day in 1991 was actually a matter of raging controversy for a decade to follow, with hard-line hawks – including those who would emerge as policy-shapers in George W. Bush’s administration—arguing vehemently that Mr. Bush has erred in stopping the war at the Kuwait-Iraq border, and not extending into Baghdad.
On Fox News, Mr. Bush seemed demonstrably proud as he remembered that day and his decision – one that has largely been validated by the bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq these past four years. In fact, one of the voices for restraint in the first Bush administration was Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who back in 1994 proudly defended the administration’s refusal to invade Iraq, asking “How many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got that right.”
And when Mr. Bush sang the praises of Brent Scowcroft, who was perhaps his closest national security advisor, he faced no follow-up questions about Mr. Scowcroft’s vocal opposition to the diplomatic course that the current President Bush has courted.
Mr. Wallace’s last interview with a commander-in-chief, you may remember, was one in which he confronted former President Clinton with the right’s most paranoid and inflammatory accusations about his administration’s record on national security.
So two former Presidents have appeared on “Fox News Sunday” in the span of 14 months. One was asked if he was responsible for 9/11. The other was asked if he preferred to be called “Grandpa” or “Poppy.” Mr. Clinton’s reaction to the harsh questioning he faced is famous. Wouldn’t it be revealing to see Mr. Bush’s reaction to a similar grilling?