Column | The media’s revisionist history of Republican presidents
Some things look worse over time – bread, milk, my hairline. Other things get better – wine, cheese, Tom Brady.
But time and history (and the media) are kinder and more forgiving to one specific group of individuals than they are to anyone else on the planet - former Republican presidents.
As I watched and read the mainstream media coverage of the life and death of President George H.W. Bush, a question came to mind: “Didn’t the media hate this guy when he was president?”
It can’t be. Do you mean to tell me that the same president the New York Times called “a man of uncommon grace” the other day was the same guy Newsweek dubbed a “wimp” in 1987? (By the way, the late president Bush was a fighter pilot in WWII, but never let reality stand in the way of a good insult.)
The media’s revisionist history doesn’t apply only to deceased Republican presidents.
The late Bush’s son, George W. Bush, was called a war criminal and a racist when he was president. The Iraq War was “his Vietnam.” Hollywood lampooned him routinely as a thicko, dolt and master of malaprops.
Now? He’s the voice of reason, a statesman, a port in a political storm. Last year, Esquire’s Charles Pierce wrote of a Bush speech, “It was very effective speech, and I agreed with every diphthong, and I have no idea how to feel about that.”
The praise for George W. became so effusive that liberals rebelled against one another. The New Republic ran a piece, a week after Pierce’s Esquire column, under the headline, “Liberals, Stop Applauding George W. Bush.”
What do we make of this altered perspective? Is it simply that the passage of time has allowed flaming liberal hackles to cool? Did Bush the younger get smarter by hanging out on his ranch painting pictures and keeping his mouth shut?
The truth is neither Bush was the person the media portrayed, though Bush ‘43 did drive the press to pathological distraction during his two terms as president. But why the seemingly sudden appreciation for presidents reviled when they were in office?
In a March column, historian and author Victor Davis Hanson had the best explanation I could find.
The praise for past Republican presidents, he wrote, is strategic and not so much an organic coming-to-terms by the media.
“The supposedly failed Bush presidency was reinvented by journalists to contrast positively with President Donald Trump’s purportedly disastrous ongoing tenure,” Hanson wrote. “The public should grow wise to the progressive media’s formula: Once-awful Republicans are always renovated to make their party successors look worse - and thus less likely to be successful.”
So, this newfound affinity for the Bushes is really about Donald Trump, at least for now. Could it be that even Trump’s reputation, in time, will be restructured to make his Republican successor look worse?
That’s not as crazy as it sounds. Hanson makes the point that Ronald Reagan, while he was president, was considered an extremist; a threat to launch an all-out nuclear war. Only after he was out of office for a while did Reagan reach emeritus status as a statesman.
Even Richard Nixon – yes, that Nixon – has been touched up by the media when compared to Trump.
In an LA Times story in 2017, in contrasting Nixon’s disdain for the media against Trump’s, Kurtis Lee wrote that at least “Nixon’s bitterest complaints were uttered behind closed doors.” Trump, on the other hand, wrote Lee, was different.
“Though presidents have long complained about the media, none have gone as far as Trump in their public derision.”
OK, so it’s not exactly a love letter to Nixon. But this is the same Nixon who had reporters wiretapped. The same Nixon who is caught on tape offering to pay for the silence of the Watergate burglars. The Nixon who orchestrated the cover-up that led to his resignation.
Either the media has an extraordinarily short memory and/or an appalling sense of history, or Hanson is right and this praise for President George H.W. Bush is a contrived attempt to make the sitting Republican president look worse than his predecessors.
Neither is a particularly appetizing possibility.