Why Oliver’s Bush Rankles Me

Ron Suskind thinks the decision to go to war had already been made in January 2002. I think it happened during the summer of 2002. Bob Woodward thinks it wasn’t made until January 2003. I suspect we have somewhat differing views, as well, on the balance of reasons for the war and the influence of various Bush advisers, including Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. To me, our back-and-forth supports the point that there’s a lot we still don’t know about the most important decision of George W. Bush’s presidency. But I think we agree, at least, that this issue is going to occupy memoirists, journalists, and historians for years to come.

Now back to W. Oliver, thank you for your thoughtful response and for the kind words about my book. To return the compliment, I really admire your ability to empathize with politicians you hate, something I thought you managed to do in Nixon as well as in W. Josh Brolin didn’t turn his character into a cartoon; he played him with the energy, charisma, and caustic wit that draw people to George W. Bush in real life. Watching a lot of scenes in the movie, you can’t help just liking that bad boy, which I imagine is an unsettling reaction for a lot of your audience. I had a similar feeling when I was writing The Bush Tragedy. The more I looked at Bush in a family context, the more human and sympathetic he became. When you understand his personal struggles and limitations, it’s hard not to feel for the guy.

But I have to say that your approach to telling this story continues to rankle me. I certainly understand the need to dramatize. But even in a film or novel, there is a responsibility to truth. An essential attribute of any successful historical fiction, it seems to me, is plausibility. You have to present scenes and dialogue that might have happened, even if they didn’t happen. Among recent films, I thought The Queen did this very well. Most of it was imagined, but the narrative and characters meshed with known reality. I recognize that your method is different, but it put me off every time I heard Bush say something that I knew he’d actually said in a completely different context. It wasn’t filling in the blanks; it was reality purée.

You haven’t said anything to justify the two crucial scenes I complained about. In my earlier post, I asked you to explain why you had Cheney making the case for war on the basis of a new American empire. Your answer is that you imagined it as “an outgrowth of his thinking.” Isn’t Cheney’s actual thinking scary enough for you without extrapolating additional homunculi? To me, what you do here is not so different from John McCain and Sarah Palin contending that Barack Obama is a secret socialist because he wants to shift more of the tax burden to the rich. The words you put in Cheney’s mouth are ones he wouldn’t ever say. As support, you offer a quote from a speech he gave in 1999 to the effect that America’s oil is likely to continue coming from the Middle East. But Cheney pointing that out when he ran Halliburton doesn’t in any way support your movie’s depiction of him as vice president arguing for American control of Iraqi and Iranian oil. Your version isn’t a theory. It’s a paranoid fantasy.

And with apologies for belaboring this, your Willie Horton scene just has no basis in reality. In his father’s 1988 campaign, George W. was not responsible for relations with all outside groups. He handled relations with the religious right. In “connecting the dots,” as you put it, you are positing a federal crime that no one else, to my knowledge, has ever accused George W. Bush of committing.

I think I’ve made my point here, Oliver, so I’ll let you have the last word.

My thanks again to all of you for joining in the discussion this week. I’ve really enjoyed it.