Apparently, both President Bushes, George W. and George H. W., had never been interviewed together before Sunday—when they agreed to take a series of polite and decidedly non-penetrating questions from Fox News’ Brit Hume.
For nearly the entire second Bush presidency, a popular theory has held that the first President Bush is, at least in the seclusion of his Kennebunkport and Houston homes, deeply distressed by his son’s stewardship, especially his decision to invade Iraq (a choice that Bush 41 pointedly refused to make during the 1991 Gulf War).
Whenever he’s been asked, George H. W. Bush has, not surprisingly, scoffed at this theorizing and expressed full faith and confidence in his son and the direction he chose for the country. But every now and then, clues have supposedly emerged that have betrayed the elder Bush’s actual state of mind. Like the now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed from the summer of 2004 in which Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41’s confidant and foreign policy soul mate (not to mention the co-author of his memoirs) warned against an invasion of Iraq. Or the moment two years ago, when Bush 41 broke down while paying tribute to his son Jeb—evidence, some suggested, of an old man heartbroken that the wrong son had made it to the White House.
There’s a certain allure to this kind of thinking. Between his academic shortcomings, his spotty military record, his business failures and his heavy drinking, it’s easy to paint Bush 43’s presidency as merely the latest in a lifelong string of failures to live up to the example set by his father. And it’s just as easy to imagine the elder Bush haunted by the painful irony that the wisdom of his own most questioned decision as president—to stay out of Baghdad—has been vindicated by the tragedy of his son’s "preemptive" war.
With his interview, Hume had an opportunity to delve, however delicately, into some of these questions. Sure, it would be futile to come out and ask Bush 43 if he thinks the Iraq war was a mistake or if his son has been a screw-up as president. Not only would Bush have provided his customary "of course not" response, he also would have clammed up for the rest of the interview, maybe even walked out.
But there are ways to get into it, and Hume seemingly had a perfect opportunity toward the end of the interview, when, seated in the Oval Office with both Bushes (each of them, presumably, relaxed by the anodyne queries Hume had been soft-balling their way), he innocuously asked Bush 41 for his "most vivid memory of your time in this office—something that happened in this very room."
The former president brought up the end of the Gulf War.
"Well, I can’t think of many," he said, "but I remember Colin Powell reaching under this desk and pulling out the telephone to call (General Norman) Schwarzkopf to see if the mission had been accomplished. After that—they said it’s time to shut down this war."
He continued: "One hundred hours, we’d done what we said we wanted to do, and he called up—and that one sticks in my mind as a dramatic moment."
Given all of the speculation about his opinion of his son’s presidency, it’s rather amazing that Bush would have brought up the end of the Gulf War—the very moment when he ruled out expanding the mission from a simple liberation of Kuwait into a full-blown invasion of Iraq.
If ever a follow-up, however innocuous, were called for, this was the moment—some effort to coax the former president into elaborating on the thought he’d just expressed. Why was that so dramatic? What thoughts were going through your mind? What kinds of decisions did you face that day?
Instead, Hume changed the subject, asking both Bushes to recall a private conversation they’d had on the day of Bush 43’s 2001 inaugural, and the moment was lost. In the course of the interview, Hume also covered the following topic: Whether Bush 41 wishes his son were moving to Houston after his presidency; whether the cane he now uses will be permanent; whether it’s true that he insisted all men wear jackets and ties in the Oval office; and whether Bush 43 wants his father to do any more skydiving.
It’s certainly reasonable that the first-ever extended interview with a father-son team of presidents would contain its share of human interest questions. It’s also not surprising in the least that a Fox News interview with a pair of Republican presidents would opt for fluff over the kind of tough questioning it used when Bill Clinton was a guest. The prospect of that kind of grilling is probably the chief reason why there has never been a Bush-Bush interview with any other outlet.
Had he been inclined to take advantage of the moment, Hume could have used the fact that the first Bush brought up the end of the Gulf War to prod some kind of meaningful statement out of the second one.
Instead, when the interview ended, we knew as much as we did before. It’s still tempting to believe that George H. W. Bush is privately devastated by his son’s choices. But there’s still not a shred of meaningful proof that he actually is.