Dubya, Stoned

Why Oliver Stone had to bowdlerize our president’s life story.

Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W. 

There’s a misapprehension abroad that W. is an Oliver Stone movie about George W. Bush. That gets it exactly backward. The life and presidency of George W. Bush were an Oliver Stone movie well before the director of JFK and Wall Street arrived on the scene. W. merely records that unassailable fact.

If this claim strikes you as tendentious, consider the following scene in W.: Late at night, a drunken 26-year-old Dubya is seen driving home with his 15-year-old brother Marvin. The two have been out carousing. Parking his car outside his parents’ house, Dubya smashes into some metal trash cans. A light goes on upstairs. As the two brothers stagger inside, their stern-faced father is waiting for them.

Poppy (shouting): I’ve had enough of your crap! Dubya (raising his fists): Let’s go mano a mano. Right here, right now!

Could there be a more hackneyed example of Stone’s penchant for musky histrionics? But it really happened. In the 1999 biography First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, former Dallas Morning News reporter Bill Minutaglio writes:

He’d been drunk, and he was out driving with his fifteen-year-old brother, Marvin. After he had rammed through the garbage cans with his car and walked in the front door of the house … he was ready, if it was going to be that way, to fight his father. He was from Houston, Texas, he was beery, he had no real career, it was late, and for most of his life he, more than anyone in the family, had been measured against his father, his grandfather, the Bush legacy. That night, he’d stood in front of his father, in the den, and asked his father if he was ready to fight: “I hear you’re looking for me. You want to go mano a mano right here?”

In the New York Post, Reed Tucker fact-checked various scenes in W. Such truth-squadding is a standard journalistic genre (Slate’s version is called “Life and Art“) intended, in nearly every case, to expose the preposterous liberties that filmmakers, playwrights, and novelists take when they dramatize real-life events. Some liberties do crop up here and there in W. In one Cabinet-meeting scene, Condoleezza Rice (mimicked to comic perfection by Thandie Newton), while trying to buck up the president’s spirits about his threadbare “coalition of the willing,” tells him that Morocco has pledged to send thousands of monkeys to Iraq. This is based on a report in a Morocco weekly that was picked up by the United Press International wire service but never confirmed. The purported monkeys were trained to detonate mines. Even if Morocco really pledged to send these detonating monkeys, the Post’s Tucker points out that none ever showed up in Iraq. A few other howlers that populated an early draft of the W. script ended up on the cutting-room floor.

But most of Tucker’s truth-squadding of the film’s more ludicrous details reveals them to be true—a remarkable finding in a newspaper as conservative as the Post. That’s my impression, too. Indeed, a few dramatic details in the film that struck me as cheap shots against our unloved president turn out, on inspection, to be either true or more plausible than I’d previously believed. Late in the film, Laura Bush tries to cheer up Dubya by offering to buy tickets to see “your favorite play.” That turns out to be Cats. Oh, please, I thought. But wouldn’t you know it, Dubya confessed to Frank Bruni of the New York Times that he adored Cats, and Bruni cruelly shoehorned that fact into his 2002 book, Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. I rolled my eyes at a scene in which Vice President Dick Cheney argues in a Cabinet meeting that the United States must depose Saddam Hussein because Iraq possesses the world’s third-largest oil reserves. Asked for his exit strategy, Cheney says, “There is no exit. We stay.” Spare me the Halliburton-conspiracy mongering, I thought. There is no documentation that Cheney thought this, much less said this. But among those who have little trouble believing Cheney would say such a thing, I’ve since learned, is former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. I’d somehow missed this nugget about Cheney, Iraq, and oil in McClellan’s much-publicized confessional 2008 memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception:

Cheney was also heavily involved in eco­nomic and energy policy. He might well have viewed the removal of Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to give America more influence over Iraq’s oil re­serves, thereby benefiting our national and economic security.

Granted, this is speculation, not fact. But Alan Greenspan, in a September 2007 interview, told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post that before the war, he’d advised Cheney and others in the Bush White House that deposing Saddam Hussein was “essential” to “protect the oil supplies of the world.” In Greenspan’s 2007 memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, he complained that it was “politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” As for the proposition that the United States intended from the beginning to maintain a military presence around Iraq’s oil fields forever, Jim Holt made that case surprisingly well in an October 2007 essay for the London Review of Books titled, “It’s the Oil.”

More than once, I noticed while watching W. that Stone and his screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, omitted details that make George W. Bush’s story more Stone-like, not less. On the day after his 40th birthday, Dubya is shown suffering from a dreadful hangover; before the day is out, he will resolve never to drink again. That’s true. His wife, Laura Bush, says sympathetically of his desire to quit drinking, “Everyone knows you’re trying.” But, in fact, Laura took a much more active role than that. According to her biographer, Ann Gerhart of the Washington Post, Dubya himself says Laura threatened divorce with the camera-ready words “Me or Jim Beam.” (For the record, Laura denies it.) That’s not in the movie! In another scene, Bush directs everyone in the Oval Office to pause for a prayer. But we don’t see Bush speechwriter David Frum, who is Jewish, turning pale when a White House staffer says to his boss, Michael Gerson, “Missed you at Bible study.” Frum has written that he found it “disconcerting” that “attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either.”

Some Stone-friendly episodes are bypassed altogether. One bizarre scene related by Barton Gellman of the Washington Post in his new book, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, has warring administration factions racing to the hospital bed of a barely conscious Attorney General John Ashcroft. One faction urges him to sign his name to an illegal domestic wiretap plan; the other urges him not to. (He didn’t, but the plan was implemented, anyway). Government dysfunction doesn’t get more like the Marx Bros. than that. It’s not in the movie.

W. portrays President Bush as a none-too-bright narcissist full of misplaced resentment because he doesn’t measure up to his pedigree. But the movie doesn’t include the most disturbing example I know of Bush’s narcissism and resentment. That would be the passage in a 1999 Talk magazine profile by conservative writer Tucker Carlson in which Bush, then governor of Texas, mimics contemptuously the desperate pleas of Karla Faye Tucker—a murderer on death row—that Bush spare her life:

In the week before [Karla Faye Tucker’s] execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. “Did you meet with any of them?” I ask.Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them,” he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Karla Faye Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’ ”  “What was her answer?” I wonder. “Please,” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “don’t kill me.”

Sometimes I marvel at the fact that Bush was able to get himself elected president—or even keep his job as governor—after making such a shocking statement. When the piece appeared, Bush quickly denied he’d said it, but he was very unconvincing. (“He just misunderstood how serious that was. … I think he misinterpreted my feelings. I know he did.”) The press, as I’ve written before, stopped repeating the story not because it’s untrue but simply because it seemed too ugly.

I suspect Stone felt the same way. W. is the rare Oliver Stone film that had to tone down the historical record because the truth was too lurid. How the hell do you tell the uncensored story of a guy like George W. Bush? No one would believe it.