For four noisy – and kind of cheerful – decades, there was nothing presidential about George W. Bush.
Often, “he would be drinking, carousing and having fun,” Charlie Younger, a boyhood friend, says in s new PBS documentary.
He made friends easily, but stumbled at work and at life. One night, he got a driving-under-the-influence ticket; another, he crashed his car into garbage cans and challenged his father to a fight.
But then came the flip side. That’s what makes the film – “American Experience: George W. Bush,” 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (May 4-5) – so interesting.
“He ended up being one of the most personally disciplined people I’ve ever met,” Andrew Card, his former chief of staff, told the Television Critics Association in January. “Very, very disciplined.”
And that change came in two abrupt phases.
The first was July 7, 1986, when he had a hangover the day after his 40th birthday partty.
“He drank too much,” Ari Fleischer, his former press secretary, told the TCA. “He acknowledges that. And at the age of 40, he gave it up overnight. What kind of discipline does (that) take?”
And the second was Sept. 11, 2001. “That day did change the presidency,” Card said. Bush “did not really come into office expecting to be really actively engaged in the foreign policy aspects, like his dad had been. So it was a defining moment.”
Iraq brought a quick victory, slow and agonizing failures, then another transformation. That’s what makes the film fascinating. “The American people saw him grow into the role of president,” said filmmaker Jamila Ephron. “For the first 40 years of his life, no one saw this as a possibility.”
Bush was a fun and likable guy, Younger says in the film, even though he “could be a real (bleep) when he drank too much.” He was also the opposite of his dad.
George H.W. Bush was a sports star and a World War II pilot who then prospered in business. His son was a college cheerleader who landed an Air National Guard spot that kept him out of Vietnam. His early efforts at an oil business floundered; a run for Congress failed.
There was a pattern to those early years, Michael Gerson, his former chief speechwriter, says in the film. “He drank too much and he had very little direction.”
Changes began, first with religion and then with that post-party decision to give up alcohol. At 43, Bush organized a group of investors who bought the Texas Rangers. He invested $500,000 and became managing general partner, a job that fit his outgoing nature. Bush became a familiar sight at the games – in the stands, not in a box upstairs – and visiting all 254 Texas counties.
By then, he was a logical candidate for statewide office, Wayne Slater, a former Dallas Morning News reporter, says in the film. “The only thing (he) doesn’t have is knowledge of how government works.”
That would change quickly, people say in the film. Bush took advice from Karl Rove on the political maneuvers and from many people on government. He stuck to his talking points.
This was “the only president who had an MBA (Master of Business Administratrion),” Card said. “So he was trained in decision-making …. He had discipline to organize and come to a decision.”
Bush tolerated opposite opinions. His chief advisors were two hawks (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) and two doves (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice). His own get-along nature was balanced by Rove’s killer tactics.
He gave people latitude, the film says, an approach that failed in responses to Hurricane Katrina, to Wall Street collaose and, especially, to post-war Iraq. Paul Bremer, the presidential envoy to Iraq, made unilateral decisions to fire soldiers, police and members of one political party; chaos followed.
Gradually, the film says, Bush reacted. He devoured every Iraq detail, holding meetings at 7:30 each morning. He overrode his advisors and formulated the successful “surge” strategy. This was not the good-time guy people had known for decades.