Did former president George W. Bush use a book-plugging appearance on NBC’s Today show to take shots at Donald Trump? Perhaps, but if so, he took a much more clear shot at the president in between the two of them.. For instance, when Matt Lauer asks Bush about the necessity of the national media in a democracy, Bush responds by proclaiming it “indispensable.” He does, however, put that in the context of some of the media’s own issues:
Early on in the exclusive sit-down, the former president expressed a clear-eyed support for the news media, saying a free press was “indispensable to democracy.”
“We needed the media to hold people like me to account,” Bush told TODAY’S Matt Lauer.
“Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”
So what was the precise context of these remarks? Lauer had asked Bush to discuss the difference between the post-election period in 2001 to now, and whether Trump was making any effort to heal it now. Bush at first pushes off the question, noting that the country was also profoundly divided in his youth, a reference to Vietnam. After getting that anodyne answer, Lauer kept pushing:
LAUER: But there’s enormous division right now, and although President Trump has said he hopes to unify the country, have you in the first month seen him do or say anything that, in your opinion, would be an attempt to heal the wounds of the election?
BUSH: Well, first of all, there’s only been one month in office, and so … you know, he’s got four years. Secondly, I think you have to take the man for his word that he wants to unify the country, and we’ll see whether he’s able to do so.
Far from being critical, Bush made the argument that it’s too soon to tell. He followed that up immediately by making the point that the media landscape had changed, and that the media has some responsibility for the disunity seen now, too:
BUSH: It’s hard to unify the country with the news media being so split up. When I was president, you know, you mattered a lot more because there was like three of you and now there’s all kinds of information being bombarded out and people can say things anonymously. It’s just a different world.
Bush’s answer could be read as a criticism of the “enemies” rhetoric at the White House, but what it looks like in context is an expert political sidestep. Lauer gave Bush an opening to offer direct criticism; instead, Bush fell back on a platitude to close out the topic, and Lauer finally obliged. (For the record, as I explained at some length at CPAC, I find the “enemies of the people” rhetoric to be unnecessarily hyperbolic and unhelpful.)
The Today show also highlighted a sound clip from Bush appearing to oppose Trump’s so-called “travel ban.” However, that answer came as more of a non-response after Lauer asked Bush three times to go on the record over the executive order, citing Bush’s own outreach to Muslims. Rather than answer directly, Bush again offered a mostly non-responsive philosophical response. His most pointed response appears to be aimed at Barack Obama and the “retreat” from the fight over the last eight years:
LAUER: That’s very different talk than what we’re hearing today about a Muslim ban. Do you think the president’s position on this has been well thought out?
BUSH: I think it’s very important for all of us to recognize is for people to be able to worship the way they want to or not worship at all. The bedrock of our freedom, a bedrock of our freedom, is the right to worship freely. You see, I understood right off the bat, Matt, that this was an ideological conflict, that people who murder the innocent are not religious people. They want to advance an ideology, and we have faced those kinds of ideologues in the past.
LAUER: But by banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering this country, do we make it easier or harder to fight the war on terrorism?
BUSH: Well, I think it’s very hard to fight the war on terrorism if we’re in retreat. And I think we learned that lesson that if the United States decides to pull out before a free society emerges, it’s going to be hard to defeat them. The enemy is very good about exploiting weakness. It’s going to be very important — if that’s the goal, to defeat ISIS, which I believe it should be — that we project strength. Now, whether or not the domestic politics plays, helps them or not, you know —
LAUER: I just want to make sure I understand. You for or against the ban? You’re against the ban?
BUSH: I am for an immigration policy that’s welcoming and that upholds the law.
That’s not exactly a frontal attack on Trump. The second answer clearly relates to Obama, and yet NBC and other news outlets seem to have overlooked that entirely. Hmmmm.
It’s no secret that the Bushes were not fans of Trump, and vice versa. However, Bush clearly tried to avoid being seen as directly criticizing Trump, and even scolded Lauer a bit over the rush to judgment on “healing” after only a month. It’s not exactly a shocking statement to herald a free press as indispensable to a democracy; it’s absolutely true, but also a cliché, especially in the framework of Lauer’s question, and so is the line about immigration policy. Like much of what we see in the media coverage of this administration, it’s a triumph of sound bites over context.