W.: (Oct. 17, 2008)
Oliver Stone takes on
George W. Bush. You either love him or hate him, and those feelings will undoubtedly affect how people react to W., Oliver Stone’s new film on our 43rd President. Stone insists his film is not a hatchet job, but a fair and truthful portrait of the man, based on extensive research.
But ultimately, partisan leanings will determine how fair and truthful you find Stone’s film. Does George W. Bush, for instance, really have Oedipal issues with his father? Maybe. But maybe not. Does Condoleezza Rice really suck up to the President so blatantly? Maybe. Or maybe not. Is Dick Cheney really such a sinister megalomaniac? Maybe. Or…Oh, wait. That one, most of us do agree on.
Here’s a quick look at the accuracy of some of the other themes Stone tackles in his engaging film about the man, his Presidency, and his Texas-size daddy issues.
Q. Did George W. Bush actually get arrested when he was an undergraduate?
A. Yes. Twice, actually, but both were for minor offenses. While a student at Yale, Bush traveled to Princeton with fraternity brothers for a football game, and after a Yale victory he climbed onto a goal post and tried to break off a piece. The Princeton authorities weren’t too keen on that, and his father had to arrange to bail him out.
Bush was arrested once in New Haven, when he and a few other fraternity brothers stole a Christmas wreath as a prank.
Q. Does the younger George really call his father, “Poppy?”
A. This was news to me, but evidently everyone, including Barbara Bush, calls George H.W. Bush, “Poppy.” I confess I might have to suppress a giggle the next time I see the elder Bush on television.
Q. Did George and Laura meet at a friend’s back yard barbeque as the film shows?
A. They did, and the attraction was instantaneous and mutual. They were married on November 5, 1977, just three months from the day they met. By all accounts, the two have shared a warm and supportive relationship for many years, and the film does a nice job capturing that.
Q. Karl Rove suddenly appears midway through the film, but Stone doesn’t show us how he and Bush met. When was that?
A. Karl Rove met the father before he met the son. Rove worked for George H.W. Bush when both were at the Republican National Committee in the 1970s, then served on his exploratory bid for the 1980 nomination.
By 1988, when the elder Bush was running for President, the younger Bush and Rove worked together on the campaign team, and forged a close working relationship. The born-again George W. and the agnostic Rove shared two key campaigning philosophies. One was the conviction that Republican electoral success lay in the untapped power of the evangelical vote. The second was the willingness to use attack politics to tear down the opponent. Both of these would dictate all their future campaigns together.
Q. Stone suggests that George W. had a hand in creating the infamous Willie Horton television ad which helped sink Michael Dukakis’s campaign in 1988. True?
A. No. Lee Atwater, Bush’s 1988 campaign manager, first introduced the prison furlough issue as a way to attack Dukakis, but an independent conservative PAC cut the actual Horton ad. Atwater is widely considered the godfather of modern attack politics. His political strategy employed smear campaigns, push polls, and reams of oppo research. Rove considered him a political mentor. George W. Bush considered him a friend.
Q. Did W. claim that God definitely wanted him to be President?
A. Close, but not quite. Richard Land, a Southern Baptist minister remembers a meeting with then-governor Bush in 1999, in which Bush said, "I believe God wants me to be president, but if that doesn't happen, it's okay." Land points out that Bush didn't say that God actually wanted him to be president. He said instead that he believed God wanted him to be president.
Q. But long before he thought about the Presidency, Bush wanted to be appointed baseball commissioner, didn’t he?
A. Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent claims he did. Vincent recalled a conversation he had with Bush in 1992, in which W., a lifelong baseball fan and then-owner of the Texas Rangers, expressed a strong wish to be named the sport’s commissioner.
That gig never panned out for Bush, of course. But if it had? Stone’s film leaves the impression that W. might have been a heck of a lot happier. A lot of us would feel the same.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films.