If someone were to ask you what the dominant political issue is at the moment, you'd probably say the national debt or extension of the Bush tax cuts. The most controversial political fight of the last two years? Surely health-care reform. So, when former president George W. Bush granted a long televised interview to promote his new memoir—which is to say, as Bush attempts to polish his tarnished reputation—you'd think he would be asked about his budget-busting tax cuts and the creation of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
You would be wrong. Like Matt Lauer Monday night, Oprah Winfrey, in her gauzy interview with Bush on Tuesday afternoon, did not ask a single question about those policies. Today conservatives argue that the budget-reconciliation process was being exploited when it was used to pass the sidecar of amendments to health-care reform that could have fallen prey to a filibuster after Ted Kennedy's death. In 2001 Republicans used reconciliation to pass Bush's tax cuts. What does Bush make of the precedent he set? We don't know, because Winfrey, like Lauer, did not ask him. Today conservatives complain about deficit spending, and that health-care reform was passed by bribing and bullying fence-sitters, but we have no idea what Bush makes of the infamous arm-twisting by his allies in the GOP House leadership to whip the votes for Medicare Part D, an unfunded expansion of the welfare state. Does Bush regret the way he governed now that Democrats are free to do the same? Apparently no one thought to ask him, or his handlers laid out ground rules prohibiting it.
Indeed, Winfrey neglected to ask Bush about any of his choices as president other than his response to Katrina, the invasion of Iraq, and the bank bailout known as TARP. Obviously some aspects of a tumultuous two-term presidency cannot be covered in less than an hour. But the fact that we heard from Bush twice on how he was more bothered by criticism of his father's presidency than his own—aww, what a loving son!—suggests that she could have cut at least one of those heartwarming moments to ask Bush about the mismanagement of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan or the extralegal imprisonment of individuals who have not been charged with, much less convicted of, any crime and their torture at the hands of the U.S. government and its allies.
Liberals who have begun to get Bush nostalgia when comparing the affable ex-president with the current crop of Republicans would find plenty to reinforce that feeling in the interview. Bush, after all, proposed TARP, while most of his caucus voted against it. And Bush's plainspoken defense of TARP—he didn't want to spend taxpayer money on the people who caused the crisis, but saving the economy was worth it—might make liberals wish, remarkably enough, that President Obama had Bush's strengths as a communicator. (Obama, of course, has other communication skills that Bush lacks.) Bush's personal decency was also apparent in the interview: he resolutely refused, unlike his polarizing vice president, Dick Cheney, to criticize Obama's performance.
Bush's critics, who by the end of his term made up 70 percent of the country, will also find reminders of why they thought Bush was ill equipped to lead the free world. Bush blamed the lack of a federal response to Hurricane Katrina on the Louisiana governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco. He said that the governor is actually in control during an emergency, which is how he wanted it as governor of Texas. He explained why this system broke down by noting that Katrina overwhelmed the government of Louisiana. Apparently this experience has not caused Bush to reconsider his commitment to states' rights in emergency situations, much less in general. Bush said, "I'm not trying to blame only the governor [Kathleen Blanco]. We all could have done a better job." So much for the buck-stops-here school of presidential management.
Bush's recollections of Katrina speak to both his relative strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, he seemed genuinely hurt by the accusation that his callous indifference to the suffering of the mostly black residents was motivated by racism, as opposed to mere callous indifference toward people generally. Now that leading Republican contenders for their party's presidential nomination fervently attack Latino immigration and Muslim expressions of their First Amendment rights of freedom to practice their religion, Bush's desire not to be an agent of hate seemed refreshingly sweet-natured.
But the flip side is his trademark self-righteousness. "I can see the accusation that 'Bush didn't care,' " he conceded, despite having objected in his book to exactly that accusation. Bush writes in his book that rapper Kanye West's claim that Bush "doesn't care about black people" was the "all-time low" of his presidency. "You can disagree with my politics," said Bush, "but don't ever call me a racist." This was the perfect opportunity for Winfrey to explain to Bush that his politics and his racial views cannot be separated. No serious person claims Bush is personally racist the way David Duke is. What civil-rights advocates have said is that Bush's politics are, if not racist, then at least racially insensitive. Bush wants to disaggregate race from politics because he does not want to contend with the racial implications of his policies.
Winfrey's last question on Katrina was whether Bush could understand why his choice not to land Air Force One in New Orleans created the impression in some minds that he was racist. Having already defended his decision not to land the plane, Bush, naturally, said no. What if Winfrey asked the same question but substituted a matter of policy for a matter of public relations? Bush cut the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's staff by 20 percent and stacked the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights with conservative ideologues who— even according to one of Bush's own appointees, Abigail Thernstrom—are looking for ways to embarrass President Obama instead of pursuing real cases of discrimination. I'd like to see Bush respond to that question, but I doubt I'll get the chance.