Viewing Bush With Compassion

Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney and Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W.

First, it’s truly an honor for me to join this discussion with three men who have done so much in cracking the code of secrecy around the Bush administration. You have done this nation a great service, ironically following in the footsteps of Bob and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, in the tormenting of Richard Nixon. Stanley Weiser, the screenwriter for W., and I could not have produced a defensible script for this film as recently as one or two years ago without the investigative work of you three, as well as that of James Risen, David Corn, Michael Isikoff, Jane Mayer, Barton Gellman, Thomas Ricks, Frank Rich, Michael Gordon, Bernard Trainer, Larry Everest, and Sy Hersh among several others, who have partially pulled back the curtain on this administration’s actions over the past seven years—and I’m certain more is yet to come.

Our purpose was a dramatization. As you know, these quotes and speeches are strung over years and numerous meetings. As dramatists we simplify and condense, yet I don’t think we crossed the line of the spirit of what happened. By example, in illustrating Ron’s 1 Percent Doctrine, we hope you understand why we included it in a lunch scene, wherein the theory is illustrated through a piece of lettuce in a bologna sandwich. Drama requires a concrete representation of the abstract.

As dramatists, we’re shaping a pattern that we see repeating itself in this W’s presidency. In my opinion, you could almost describe the dialogue of these eight years as a loop in the sense that the body language, the understanding, the dialogue remains very much the same. The stimulus changes; whether it’s the economic debacle or the Iraq war, it doesn’t seem to matter to Bush in the way he responds to these situations. His speeches are remarkably similar, as is his delivery of them. So basically we have to make our patterns dramatic and economic. And in the film we are only dealing with the first three years of the presidency.

And in presenting an immense public figure like W—or Nixon, for that matter—we felt that it was essential that the film empathize (though not sympathize) with the subject at the center. I have strong negative personal feelings about this man. But as a dramatist, I consider it professional to remove my feelings, to allow the audience to live through him and see him as human.

In not showing 9/11—as Ron points out—I’d say that to that end, we felt 9/11 was an event that most of the viewers would have experienced and know about intimately. In fact, it was the subject of my last film, World Trade Center, which was about the harrowing events of that day. Our film, W., opens a month or so later with a discussion of the “axis of evil” speech, underlining the broader context of the need for revenge after 9/11. Bush, in this scene, is now an authoritative figure who has found his identity as a “war president”; in many scenes that follow, we try to show how he, Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others politicized the 9/11 attack to erode many of our freedoms and to settle personal scores—which, in the end, is W’s worst sin, in my book.

As for the role of his father, I think the most eloquent discussion of this lies in Jacob’s book The Bush Tragedy. There are many anecdotes and quotes of this strong attachment between father and son. This is further argued in the book First Son, by Bill Minutaglio, a respected Texas journalist whose work provided for us a crucial record of his earlier years. Bob, you touched on this as well in State of Denial, quoting Scowcroft: “George W. couldn’t decide whether he was going to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game. Now, he had tried at the game, and it was a disaster.” In summation of this idea, I think Jacob truly hit on one of the most original aspects of this story—in fact, the film doesn’t really resemble another political film that I know of, and the many journalists that I’ve talked to in the last few weeks have never really mentioned another film, which is rare.

So there is an original mixing of mythologies in this, involving (as Jacob points out) the prodigal son becoming the respectable son in Act 2. But not really. He turns out to be, in the third act of his life, an Icarus figure from Greek mythology, whose wings were melted by the sun when he tried to fly higher than his father.

The issue of the 11-minute-long scene of the meeting in the “situation room” is a very interesting one to me, and we should probably discuss this in a future post. Yes, the scene is entirely invented, as I am sure there is no way that these principals could have assembled in one room and so clearly summed up their points of view. But, I think the dialogue fairly represents the point of view of Cheney (geopolitical domination), Rumsfeld (draining the swamp, shaking up the Middle East, re-establishing the Pentagon’s dominance after the Afghan war), and Powell (objections to the war). Bob, if I remember correctly, mentioned that there was some shouting behind closed doors between Powell and his group and Cheney and his group. I agree that we made Powell probably stronger than he was, but in the end, we remained accurate to his capitulation. We see him as the “good soldier,” who all his life prepared for this moment of standing up for a principle, yet, in the end, he folded. The right thing Powell could have done was resign, as Cyrus Vance did, as secretary of state before the war.

Not to belabor this too much right now, but Cheney’s advocacy of an energy policy that focused on the Middle East, coupled with his arguments for pre-emptive war, are well-known. In a speech in 1999 at the Institute of Petroleum, he argued that, “By 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day. So where is this oil going to come from? … While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately is.” Certainly we can agree that questions about energy, security, and regional stability were a prominent part of the discussion leading up to the war. But we went further and imagined a complete geopolitical strategy for Eurasia, where 80 percent of the world’s energy resources lie, to ensure, in Cheney’s mind, the survival of the United States. This is viewed as an outgrowth of his thinking developed in the Project for the New American Century.

Finally, to Jacob’s point about the 1988 presidential election and the critical role W played in his father’s campaign: He was the go-to guy on the campaign for outside groups, including evangelical organizations. One such organization, the National Security Political Action Committee, produced the Willie Horton ad. It’s simply inconceivable to me to think that W, who proved in his campaign to be a shrewd political operative, did not know about it before it was aired. We do connect dots here, but it’s consistent with a central element of W’s personality: the need to be tough as nails and resolute in all fights—even when wrong, and especially during political contests. He learned this lesson the hard way after losing an early congressional race in Texas, which we also explore in the film.

While we attempted to paint a human portrait of George W. Bush, I firmly believe that history will not spare this man. His record of playing the fiddle while Rome burned will speak for itself. But I believe our film offers, ironically to me, a strange compassion for W, who is so hard to like. By trying to achieve compassion rather than condemnation, I do hope that we can open our thinking and understanding to the great price we have paid for allowing him to be our leader for the last eight years. Compassion for the man, yes, but a greater compassion for our country. And maybe some long-forgotten humility from all of us. Whether our leaders understand it or not, there is great strength in humility.