FLASHBACK: Media’s 10 Tackiest Attacks on George H. W. Bush

December 2nd, 2023 8:47 AM

Five years ago this week, former President George H. W. Bush passed away at the age of 94. The media’s 2018 retrospectives of Bush and his presidency are an example of how liberal journalists can be like prehistoric bugs stuck in amber, frozen in biased poses struck decades earlier, regardless of how thoroughly they’ve been debunked.

The New York Times obituary, for example, revived its own long-discredited report from 1992 on how Bush had supposedly been unfamiliar with a supermarket scanner as an example of how the President was “out of touch with ordinary Americans.” As NewsBusters’ Clay Waters explained, “it was a phony anecdote forwarded by reporter Andrew Rosenthal (who wasn’t even there) to paint the first Bush as an out-of-touch patrician.”

The Associated Press included the same bogus tale, even though their obituary for the ailing nonagenarian was presumably researched and written well ahead of time. “During a campaign visit to a grocers’ convention, he reportedly expressed amazement when shown an electronic checkout scanner. Critics seized on the moment, saying it indicated that the president had become disconnected from voters,” the AP’s Michael Graczyk wrote.

Yet as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell acknowledged during live coverage two days later, none of it was true. “It was misreported by the reporter at the scene,” she explained. “As they might say today, ‘fake news,’” her colleague Chuck Todd chimed in.

“It was misreported, but it still it ended up in the obituaries,” Today co-host Savannah Guthrie pointed out.

That wasn’t the only fake anti-Bush news peddled that week. Lefty talking heads bashed Bush for the “ugly” Willie Horton ad, calling it a “famous dog whistle ad” and an “appeal to racial animus.” Except, as FNC’s Brit Hume (ABC’s White House correspondent during Bush’s presidency) correctly informed viewers: “His campaign has gotten a reputation for being responsible for the famous Willie Horton ad that was used against [1988 Democratic nominee Michael] Dukakis. In fact, the Bush campaign didn’t put out that ad. That was done by a third-party group.”

Just as they did during his presidency, journalists measured George Bush not by any objective standard, but how well he measured up to their own liberal preferences and prejudices. From the NewsBusters’ archives, here are ten of the tackiest examples of the media bashing Bush five years ago this week, as the nation geared up to say farewell to the 41st President:

■ “We have to bring up Willie Horton...the Lee Atwater ad and what it meant in the battle against Michael Dukakis. We know he was losing, Dukakis was leading and then that ad started running. And the way in which he appealed to racial animus....So, there’s a way in which he would do anything to get elected.”
— MSNBC contributor Eddie Glaude during live coverage, December 1, 2018.

■ “I think often in the times when we have these deaths, we’re way too quick to canonize these people. George Herbert Walker Bush was a great man. He did great things, but he also had flaws....He was also somebody who used brass knuckles in a political campaign. He’s the one who did the Willie Horton ad. He’s the one who did certain things in political campaigns. He — there’s questions about him on Iran/Contra. He’s a good man but I think it’s a lesson to learn: let’s not canonize these people.”
— ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd on This Week, December 2, 2018.

PBS host Hari Sreenivasan: “Do you think that the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis ushered in a new era? Because while that is still a bad ad, when you look at it now, it seems tame compared to what kind of ads are on the air every two years.”
Historian Michael Beschloss: “It seems tame now, but that was something that hinted at racial animosity. It was certainly by no means George Bush’s best moment. In later years, he was not proud of it.”
— Exchange on PBS NewsHour, December 1, 2018.

■ “He got hammered [for agreeing to a tax increase in 1990]. Part of it was his own making because what he called ‘voodoo economics,’ he then under Reagan bought into this kind of discredited idea now, discredited by history, that you can cut taxes, raise defense spending and still balance the budget. This was this mythology and there was a tax cutting fever that took over the Republican Party and he got caught in the cross currents and wasn’t strong enough politically to resist it, starting when he was Vice President. He should have stood up more strongly, I think that really hurt him.”
— Former Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter on MSNBC’s Hardball, December 1, 2018.

■ “I think the passing of President Bush is a time for us to reflect on the soul of the Republican Party. You know, this is a man who started out one of the first supporters of Planned Parenthood. This is a man who very famously resigned from the NRA when they started having that anti-government rhetoric....This is also a President whose campaign, you know, included the Willie Horton ad, the most famous dog whistle ad until this cycle.”
— Panelist Heather McGhee on NBC’s Meet the Press, December 2, 2018.

■ “Sam, was it really a kinder, gentler time the way it’s sometimes recalled? I mean, think about 1988, the Bush campaign, Lee Atwater was the campaign manager. Roger Ailes was a media consultant. This famous Willie Horton ad that supported the Bush campaign tore down Dukakis. Pretty ugly kind of campaigning...”
— Host Brian Stelter to former ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, CNN’s Reliable Sources, December 2, 2018.

■ “The tributes to former President George Bush in recent days have focused on his essential decency and civility, and his embrace of others, including even his onetime opponents. But the ‘last gentleman,’ as he has been called, was not always so gentle. Mr. Bush’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1988 was marked in part by the racially charged politics of crime that continues to reverberate to this day. The Willie Horton episode and the political advertising that came to epitomize it remain among the most controversial chapters in modern politics....”
New York Times reporter Peter Baker in a December 4, 2018 article headlined, “Horton Ad Set Tone on Race in Politics That Still Stings for African-Americans.”

■ “He said the one smart thing a Republican has said about supply-side economics in the last 40 years. He said it was ‘voodoo economics,’ and then when he took the job with Ronald Reagan, he had to reverse himself on that. He had to reverse himself on abortion, which was handing a lot of the party or his part of the party over to essentially the Christian right....The primary legacy of George H.W. Bush as President is that battlefield courage does not necessarily translate into political courage.”
Esquire contributor Charles Pierce on MSNBC’s All In, December 3, 2018.

■ “His career is littered with the wrong direction, whether it was not fighting for civil rights in the ’60s, whether it was ignoring the AIDS crisis because of how it disproportionately or entirely affected gay people.”
— PBS’s Christiane Amanpour remembering Bush on the December 5, 2018 Amanpour and Company.

■ “A lot of Iraqis died on his watch. A lot of Panamanians died on his watch. A lot of black people saw the racist ad campaign, Willie Horton, that he ran in 1988. A lot of people died in the AIDS crisis that he didn’t really pay much attention to, in the War on Drugs that he ramped up.”
— Journalist (and future MSNBC host) Mehdi Hasan on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Myers, December 5, 2018.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.