The American Experience: Season 20, Episode 13

George H.W. Bush: Part I (5 May 2008)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary | History
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George H.W. Bush: Part I (05 May 2008) on IMDb 6.1/10

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The Last Gentleman.
21 November 2010 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

As always, the producers have done a fine job of organizing the structure of a president's life. George H. W. Bush's is now part of a boxed set from PBS. There is some variation in the appeal of the episodes. I thought, for instance, that Woodrow Wilson's episodes had been turned almost into an epic soap opera. But all of the episodes, no matter the subject, are invariably accurate in their presentation of the material and generally balanced in their assessments. Editorial comments, for good or bad, come not from the narration or the images but from talking heads who are in a position to know what they're talking about, and none of the observations are scurrilous. The films are thoughtful descriptions of lives, families, and careers, not tabloid exposes.

There is a good deal of information packed into this multi-hour program. That doesn't make it easy to review the story of a given individual. As with any life, there are a series of incidents, many unrelated to the others, some generated by chance, and no unifying "theme", no simple explanation for the things we witness.

Yet, in the case of George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st president, in office from 1989 to 1993, more than for any other president, I'm tempted to wonder if his character and career didn't have one or two relatively simple characterological traits.

They could be given names, such as "moderation," "modesty," "self containment," "achievement," and so on but the names, as is so often the case, don't quite capture the concepts themselves.

Bush was the son of Prescott Bush, a man of extreme wealth and political importance both in New England and nationally. Prescott Bush was socially progressive and fiscally moderate to conservative, as many Republicans were in the less-polarized 1940s. He supported not only business interests but was treasurer for Planned Parenthood and he promoted the United Negro College Fund and the Peace Corps. Prescott was elected Senator but his most important contributions to national policy may have come from his being one of "the wise men," a circle of perceptive appointees who advised presidents Truman and Eisenhower. They avoided the limelight. They never had to get into the bare-knuckled fights taking place in the political arena.

George H. W. Bush was sprung from this clubby and privileged Bostonian background, in which the object of the game was not to achieve celebrity but to urge caution and stability and to help less privileged (and presumably less intelligent) people to improve themselves.

Here is a definition of "noblesse oblige" from Wikipedia: "Noblesse oblige" is generally used to imply that with wealth, power and prestige come responsibilities....In ethical discussion, it is sometimes used to summarize a moral economy wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege or who cannot perform such duty. Finally, it has been used recently primarily to refer to public responsibilities of the rich, famous and powerful, notably to provide good examples of behaviour or to exceed minimal standards of decency."

I don't want to get into the regional sub-culture of the New England aristocracy because there isn't space to do it. Anyone interested in this fascinating subject -- and I'm not being sarcastic -- should take a look at E. Digby Baltzell's "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia." (It's not that intimidating.) Neither the writers nor the talking heads mention this but the overall impression of this documentary is that George H. W. Bush was guided by "noblesse oblige" during his entire political career, as well as by other New England values that encourage a generous but receding personality, conservative in appearance and demeanor.

It may have cost him his second term. The economy was in bad shape towards the end of Bush's four years, as it had been when he first took office. Then, as the election approached, there were signs of improvement, largely due to a compromise budget Bush had signed, one that cut spending but raised taxes. Bush refused to brag about the improvement, which had taken three years to show up. He also refused to travel to Germany when the Berlin Wall was destroyed, stand on top of it, and humiliate Michael Gorbachev, though all his advisers urged him to. He was asked by reporters and critics why he hadn't "finished the job" in Iraq. (Colin Powell observes, "Nobody is asking today.") He was increasingly seen as weak and insincere. Ad hominem attacks came from both the plump, New-Agey Clinton on the left, and the vitriolic Pat Buchanan and the let's-get-down-to-business H. Ross Perot on the conservative side. The ads and media commentary were filled with rancor. As one talking head observes, "Nineteen ninety-eight was the year of the handler." The political character of the country was undergoing a great lurch and Bush, a Republican moderate, was left in the depopulated middle. He was just plain uncomfortable with negative ads and braggadocio. That's the ultimate shape his character assumes, judging from this film. He may have been the last gentleman to occupy the White House.

Personally, I salute him for preserving as much of his dignity as he did. It may have been a political mistake but it was a moral act, in Kant's terms. Criticizing G. H. W. Bush for weakness or impotence because he refused to show anger, to dissemble, to insinuate, to occupy a country whose army he had just destroyed, is to define "civility" and "reason" as "bad." If he was a "wimp", then a little more wimpiness from both sides of the political spectrum would be very welcome today. That's my opinion anyway, and I don't give my opinions freely. I charge what they're worth. And that will be fifteen cents. Thank you.


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