Fathers, Sons, and Presidents

Dear Oliver, Ron, and Bob,

Thanks to the three of you for joining in the discussion. W. arrives at what looks like the end of an era—not just of a disastrous eight-year presidency but arguably of the conservative ascendancy that began in 1980. How the Bush family, which once typified pre-Reagan Republicanism, came to play such a pivotal role in this period is a central part of the story. If we want to understand recent history, we need to understand this unreflective family in a way its members will probably never understand themselves.

Oliver Stone with Josh Brolin on the set of W.

Oliver, you’ll be glad to hear that I disagree with Ron about your treatment of the father-son relationship. To me, the evidence does show George W. to be engaged in an epic battle with his dad. That Oedipal struggle is at the very heart of his presidency’s failure. The son came to define so much of himself—his personality, his religion, his decision-making—in opposition to his father. More important, 43 developed his substantive view of the world by rejecting his father’s moderate, diplomatic realism. Seeing his father as a failed president (while at the same time wanting to avenge him), W thought the path to success on issue after issue was to reject 41’s choices in favor of 40’s. You’ve lost some nuance along the way, but I think you depict the contours of this vexed relationship accurately.

As promised, I won’t waste your time complaining about small inaccuracies and changes made for dramatic effect. I do want to challenge you, however, on two places where your version of events is simply at odds with what we know to be true. The first is your basic interpretation of the Iraq war. A crucial scene in the film takes place in the White House situation room. The key players are all there (including Karl Rove, who would not have been). Colin Powell makes his case against the invasion to no avail. Then, Dick Cheney, played by Richard Dreyfuss, stands in front of an electronic map and delivers a lecture.

America’s natural resources are being used up, Cheney says, and most of the world’s oil and gas is right here in the Middle East. To remain rich and powerful, we have to exploit Iraq’s huge untapped reserves. When challenged on the issue of exit strategy, he replies (if I’ve got this right—I was taking notes in the dark): “There is no exit strategy. We stay.” Once the United States owns Iraq, Cheney declares, we’ll be in strategic position to control Iran—”the mother lode.” As the map lights up with red dots indicating American bases, he goes on: “Control Iran, control Eurasia, control the world. Empire—real empire. Nobody will fuck with us again!”

Oliver, if you’d played the film as a Dr. Strangelove-style farce, you might have gotten away with this. The scene is one “mwa-ha-ha” cackle from Dreyfuss away from satire. But we’re meant to take this seriously. Do you really think Cheney persuaded Bush to go to war so we could get Iraq’s oil and then Iran’s? And if so, why do you think that?

Another case in point: The film depicts a meeting between George W. and his dad during the 1988 presidential campaign. The son pops the famous Willie Horton ad into the VCR and tells his father that “Karl” says this could win you the election. That’s strong stuff, the elder Bush responds. Just make sure no one can connect it to the campaign. George W. says not to worry, they’re going to run it through an independent expenditure committee. “Good work, son,” the dad says. “You’re earning your spurs.”

Great scene, except that no one has ever suggested that George W. had anything to do with the Willie Horton ad, no one has ever proved that George H.W. approved it, and Karl Rove had nothing to do with Bush’s 1988 campaign at all. If father and son conspired in the way you depict, they would have been guilty of a federal crime, namely evading contribution limits by coordinating with an outside group. I can’t prove that this didn’t happen. But as far as I know, you have no basis for thinking that it did.

Oliver, I know that you don’t want to be thought of as a conspiracy theorist. But these are conspiracy theories with no evidence to support them. So, why did you put them in your movie?