In his death, liberal media painted a very rosy image of former President George H.W. Bush, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer saying that “George H.W. Bush is being remembered as a family man, a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.” As president, George H.W. Bush stood up to the gun lobby, brought in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and ended the Cold War without firing a shot. However, he had also ordered the Desert Storm operation in which 88,000 tons of U.S. bombs were dropped on Iraq, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis and completely destroying civilian infrastructure. None of these Iraqi deaths were featured in the obituaries of U.S. liberal media. He also sold the first Gulf War “on a mountain of war propaganda,” as an investigation by journalist Joshua Holland concluded. George H.W. Bush also refused to speak with the special counsel during the Iran-Contra affair, declined to hand over his diary, and pardoned Ronald Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on the eve of his trial, so that he — Bush — wouldn’t have to testify. The Intercept’s co-founder Glenn Greenwald joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the difference between hagiography and journalism — and to produce a more accurate and fair obituary of the late former-president George H.W. Bush.
Mehdi Hasan: Hello, Mehdi Hasan here. Before we begin, I want to take a moment to invite you to become a member of Deconstructed and The Intercept. Because it’s never been more important to support truly independent journalism.
If you’re listening to this show, then you probably already know that The Intercept is a news organization that doesn’t follow the crowd; isn’t afraid to challenge orthodoxies. We don’t worship at the altar of access journalism. We cover stories that other media outlets can’t be bothered to cover themselves.
But if we’re going to keep producing this show and all the other great journalism you know and love in 2019 and beyond, we’re going to need your support. Right now you can head over to theintercept.com/give, and make a donation of $15, $50, $100 or, more. Or, you can become a sustaining member and sign up for a $5 or $10 monthly donation. Become a member at whatever amount feels right to you.
Because membership is not only about money — it’s about a proud and public declaration of support for the kind of fierce, adversarial journalism we do every day.
Press freedom is under attack in this country. To support the kind of independent journalism that the intercept produces every day, head over to theintercept.com/give right now — that’s theintercept.com/give.
And now, on to the show.
Glenn Greenwald: They’re creating political hagiography — exploiting this death to make political points, while at the same time demanding that nobody else make countervailing political points and that’s what I find so bothersome about it, is it’s a demand to engage in one-sided propaganda.
MH: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. George H.W. Bush passed away last Friday at the age of 94. He was the 41st President of the United States, and tributes have poured in from people across the political spectrum who have dubbed him the anti-Trump, the last Republican moderate, a paragon of civility; of decency; of honor.
Bill Clinton: History will be quite kind to him, and his presidency.
Barack Obama: He was a good reminder that ultimately, we’re Americans first.
Colin Powell: He has the universal respect of the American people.
George W. Bush: Job well done, George H.W. Bush.
MH: On the show today is my good friend and Intercept colleague Glenn Greenwald, who, like me, is pretty fed up with some of the appallingly one-sided U.S. media coverage of Bush’s death and the whitewashing of some of the darker aspects of his presidency.
GG: What really is being demanded is that we all submit to historical revisionism and the fact that journalists, of all people, are leading the way and making that demand is deeply corrupt and offensive. And I just think it’s incumbent upon all of us to refuse to allow them to do that.
MH: So today, on this special episode of Deconstructed, “George H.W. Bush: The Inconvenient Truth.”
When a president dies, something weird happens to the U.S. media, and, as a Brit watching cable news, I kinda feel like tearing my hair out.
Lester Holt: Herbert Walker Bush was the last of the greatest generation to serve as President, and he embodied the best of that generation: Decency, honor, integrity.
Tom Brokaw: He was a great man. I really got to know him as a friend.
Karl Rove: He had a great sense of humor. Fun to be around.
Franklin Graham: He had Christ-like character. He was humble, he was faithful.
MH: Christ-like character? Hmm. Look, the late George H.W. Bush, or Bush Sr., as many of us refer to him, did a lot of good things as president of the United States. He did.
He helped end the Cold War without firing a shot. He stood up to the gun lobby. He stood up to the pro-Israel lobby. He brought in the Americans with Disabilities Act. He called Donald Trump a “blowhard” and even voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Unlike the current president who dodged serving in Vietnam because of bone spurs, Bush Sr. joined the Navy at the age of 18 so he could fight for his country in World War II.
And, fun fact: As my sixth grader told me last night, Bush hated broccoli and banned it from Air Force One. I guess he and I have at least one thing in common.
But here’s the thing: George Bush Sr. also did a lot of awful things, killed a lot of innocent people and we can’t just ignore that or pretend none of that happened.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking, and some of you have said this to me on social media since I wrote a piece last Saturday for The Intercept, pointing out how the 41st president, “engaged in race baiting, obstruction of justice, and war crimes.”
“This isn’t the time,” you said. “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” “Show some compassion.” “Show some respect for his family.”
Look, I have nothing but respect and compassion for his grieving family members — even his war criminal son. To lose your father is horrible. But Bush wasn’t just a family man, wasn’t just a private citizen. He was a public figure; he was for a time the most powerful man on earth. And it is the job of journalists to hold powerful people, to hold power to account, not to produce hagiography masquerading as journalism.
You can’t ask journalists, who are supposed to be producing the first draft of history, remember, to just pour praise on the positive legacy of a dead president and ignore the negative aspects of it.
Well, of course, many journalists do exactly that, which is what we’re going to be discussing today. But I, for one, cannot sit silently by as brazen lies are told on cable news or in newspaper op-eds and obituaries.
Listen to Colin Powell who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush Sr., speaking on CNN on Saturday:
CP: The quote that he gave, and it was used a few moments ago, “Politics need not be mean and nasty.” And he lived by that. And I wish we could get some — some of that back into our system now.
MH: George Bush Sr. said we shouldn’t be nasty? I have two words for you: Willie Horton.
Newscaster: The notorious Willie Horton ad, financed by supporters of President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which played directly into white fear and African-American stereotypes.
MH: Willie Horton was serving a life sentence for murder in Massachusetts — where Bush’s 1988 Democratic presidential opponent, Michael Dukakis (Remember him?) was governor — and Horton had fled a weekend furlough program brough in by Dukakis and raped a Maryland woman.
Voiceover: Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing a man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.
MH: That ad, released by a political action committee tied to Bush during the 1988 campaign, wanted us all to know that the Democrats were OK with a black guy raping white women. It was racism, pure and simple.
Voiceover: Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.
MH: As Bush campaign director Lee Atwater bragged, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” Atwater later apologized for the ad, on his deathbed! George Bush Sr. though — never did.
And yet Never-Trump Republican Max Boot in the Washington Post called Bush Sr. “the anti-Trump.” CNN’s Chris Cilizza said the elder Bush was “the exact political opposite of Donald Trump.”
Look, I get it. Compared to the openly corrupt, know-nothing, neo-fascist demagogue in the White House right now, Bush Sr. looks pretty good. But it’s a very low bar.
And, by the way, guess what? When it comes to special counsels and cover-ups and presidential pardons, Bush had a lot more in common with Trump than some in the media might have you believe.
Bob Kur: Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh says the presidential pardons of six former Reagan administration officials, including Caspar Weinberger, won’t end the Iran-Contra investigation. Walsh says, Mr. Bush’s own misconduct still is an issue.
MH: Sorry, you cannot get all worked up about Trump dangling a pardon in front of former campaign chair Paul Manafort, or refusing to sit down for an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and then give Bush Sr. a pass on Iran-Contra. Bush refused to speak with the special counsel, refused to hand over his diary, and pardoned Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on the eve of his trial, so that he, Bush, wouldn’t have to testify. He participated, in the words of Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh, in a cover-up of Iran-Contra. Or what you might call obstruction of justice.
Then there’s Iraq. Gulf War I: the good war, the clean war, the one Saddam Hussein started, unlike his son’s Iraq war. Bush Sr. was just responding, right?
Former President George H.W. Bush: Less than a week ago, in the early morning hours of August 2, Iraqi Armed Forces, without provocation or warning, invaded a peaceful Kuwait.
MH: “Without provocation or warning”? I guess it’s not just Bush Junior who told lies about Iraq to justify U.S. military action. The reality is that the week before Saddam Hussein’s illegal and outrageous invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Bush Sr.’s own ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told Saddam, a long-standing U.S. ally and client lest we forget, that “[W]e [the United States] have no opinion on… your border disagreement with Kuwait.” Talk about a green light for invasion!
[sound of missile launch]
More than 88,000 tons of U.S. bombs dropped, tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, including more than 400 Iraqi civilians massacred in an air raid shelter in Baghdad after a U.S. airstrike — what Human Rights Watch called “a serious violation of the laws of war.”
But these Iraqi deaths — they don’t feature in any of the obits or tributes to Bush in the U.S. media. The New York Times and Washington Post obits this past weekend both devoted sections to the Gulf War but neither mentioned the Iraqis killed by Bush, or the massacre at the Amiriyah air raid shelter, or the deliberate destruction of Iraqi civilian infrastructure: the power stations, the food processing plants, the flour mills. Neither of them mentioned the cholera and typhoid epidemics that then followed the end of that war, or the sanctions that killed more than a million Iraqis.
Bush’s life matters, apparently; deserves respect. But brown lives don’t matter — nor does the truth, it seems.
MH: My guest today is my good friend and Intercept colleague — and co-founder of The Intercept, I should add — the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Brazil-based author and commentator Glenn Greenwald, who has written extensively not just on U.S. foreign policy disasters and the failures of the U.S. media to cover them, but also on the way in which we cover the deaths of presidents and politicians more broadly.
Glenn, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed. Good to finally have you on the show.
GG: I know I’ve been a little hurt that it’s taken this long, but I’m happy to be here.
MH: Hey, the sad passing of George Bush Sr. has brought us together. Before we get into George Bush Sr., George H.W. Bush and his legacy, Glenn, deal with the argument, which is a good-faith argument from some people that you and I shouldn’t even be having this conversation: It’s too soon! It’s in bad taste! He just died! He hasn’t even been buried yet! What is your response to that line of argument?
GG: A couple of points: One is, it reminds me a lot of the people who, in the wake of mass shootings, complain when people quote-unquote politicize the mass shootings by raising issues, for example, of the need for greater gun control when obviously the epidemic of mass shootings is an inherently political event, impossible to talk about without political points because there’s political policy decisions that have led to these mass shootings and so the people who want to suppress the real implications of those events try to censor the discourse by saying the only thing you’re allowed to do is expressed sadness and thoughts and prayers to the victims, when, in fact, the entire event is intrinsically political.
In the case of people, public figures, especially political leaders who die, it’s even more of a deceit because not only is an intrinsically political event, right? The only reason we’re all talking about the death of George H.W. Bush is because he was a political leader.
MH: Right. It’s not like hew as friends with each of us individually, or our next-door neighbor.
GG: Exactly. What really bothers me about it is that if the people who were insisting that there be no political criticisms of him were willing to uphold their end of that etiquette bargain by not making any political points of their own, I would still disagree with them but at least I would have more respect for their position.
GG: So, in other words, like we can’t say anything politically bad about George H.W. Bush until — I don’t know, whatever their religious, like, period of time is that hasn’t elapsed yet.
MH: Yeah, they never say when is the right time to say it. In two months time, everyone has moved on?
GG: Right, it’s very arbitrary. It’s just — I don’t know what the time period is. But they grant themselves license to make extremely political points.
MH: Right. Exactly.
GG: You know, they’re building him into this political icon of nobility and positive political values and a patriot. So they’re creating political hagiography, making political arguments, exploiting this death to make political points, while at the same time demanding that nobody else make countervailing political points. And that’s what I find so bothersome about it is that it’s a demand to engage in one-sided propaganda.
MH: And the hypocrisy, I think, is spot on, what you say. It’s so hard to get this point across though every time a public figure dies, because it’s the same argument just like after every mass shooting, it’s the same argument from the right and the NRA. It is the same argument, whether it’s John McCain whether it’s George Bush Sr., whether it’s Margaret Thatcher, and you wrote a very good piece about death etiquette back in 2013 for the Guardian in which I urge all listeners to go read where Glenn explains in length why we shouldn’t be silent at times like this, but well that’s what’s so annoying — even friends of mine, family members were saying to me, “Why did you write this piece on Saturday about Bush? You know, we love your stuff but now’s not the time, show some respect for the family.”
And I’m like, well if it was just about the family, then of course — of course I want to show respect for the family. But this is not about the family. If it was just — if CNN was saying, “Breaking News: George Bush Sr. has died, he was the 41st president. He leaves behind 8 grandkids, 17 great-grandkids, it’s a very sad time for the family” — I probably wouldn’t say anything and I wouldn’t have written an article maybe.
But if you’re going to go on air and say, “Here’s all his former assistants, advisors, cabinet secretaries and then telling us that he was a great president and he only did good things,” then it is incumbent upon us as journalists, on you and me and others to say, “Um, I think you’re forgetting a few things!”
GG: And I think that’s the key point — is this whole discussion, this taboo conflates public and private etiquette.
So if I were to go to George H.W. Bush’s funeral or his wake and his children were there and his siblings and his relatives and his friends, I wouldn’t go and start just out of the blue and vindictively rubbing in their faces criticisms because I would give them space to privately mourn. Those are private ceremonies and I think that they have the right to mourn.
But it’s not strictly a private event. It’s a very public and political event. The death of most people are not discussed on CNN for days at a time. The reason that it’s being discussed is because in addition to being a private person — a father, a brother, all that — he was also a president who made really weighty decisions.
MH: One of the only 44 men in history to have served as President of the United States.
GG: Exactly. And the other point is that this is not applied consistently by anybody. If you go, for example, and look at how CNN or how the New York Times or how any major media outlet in the West talked about the death of Hugo Chavez, they would say the good point, you know, he brought people out of poverty, he was popular among the Venezuelan poor. And they would also talk about the bad points: He restricted a free press, he was viewed as having authoritarian tendencies. Exactly what should be done, right? Which is that you have an honest discussion of where the person fits in.
So why should we exempt American leaders from honest discussions unless we’re propagandists and state TV?
MH: So here’s my question to you: As much as definitely it is propaganda and state TV and watching CNN, on Saturday specially as a Brit in D.C., just watching that was, it was bizarre to see the kind of music — and you had Jake Tapper, who is a journalist I respect at CNN — tweeting out cartoons of George and Barbara Bush meeting outside the gates of heaven. Just bizarre, the whole heaven angle with journalists is weird. And I’m a believer! I’m not even an atheist like you; I actually do believe in God in the afterlife. It’s just weird to be having discussions about afterlife in the kind of mainstream journalism; that’s not really the purview view of journalists.
But for me, what was interesting was: What is that driven by? Is that propaganda and state TV? I’m sure part of it is. But part of me, maybe as the immigrant here, says is that a cultural thing about the U.S. media? That Americans and American journalists are just more pious, more deferential to people in power than maybe other even other Western journalists; I don’t think you would have this kind of coverage if Angela Merkel died tomorrow on German TV. Maybe I’m wrong.
GG: I think — I think there’s a lot going on, right? So, I mean the first time I really noticed this was when Ronald Reagan died. And the coverage was beyond suffocating; I mean it made the coverage of McCain and George H.W. Bush look almost, you know, mean-spirited. It was just — it was never-ending. They followed his casket around all over the country.
And Ronald Reagan was a deeply divisive figure but for at least a week on TV, not a syllable of criticism was permitted.
So yes I think it is that the U.S. media is extremely patriotic. One of the flaws of the U.S. media is because, you know, people like cable hosts on CNN and MSNBC are extremely rich, they live in the same neighborhoods as the powerful people that they cover, they start identifying with them, they’re part of the same cultural class, they interview them, they get to know their top aides, their kids — it’s just a natural human instinct I think, if you don’t try and create some psychological distance to start revering the people that you’re covering. And I think that’s part of the flaw of U.S. journalism.
MH: But here’s what I’ll add to that: That same, what you just said, applies, I’m sure, to the British press corps too. But to be fair to the British press corps which has many sins, you don’t see Downing Street political correspondents standing up when Teresa May or Tony Blair would come in the room, and that would be absurd. The White House Press Corps stands up when Trump comes into the room; I’ve always found that bizarre. And maybe that’s partly because of the deference, partly because the president is also your head of state — he’s also kind of the Queen of England and the prime minister wrapped into one. Which is kind of — adds to the whole sense of grandeur and this idea that the President is the state and, you know, this, as you say, patriotism: this idea that you must mourn for George Bush publicly because it’s a patriotic thing to do.
And it’s not just the media, Glenn. It’s not just kind of the centrists or liberals or whatever it is, there’s this pressure on progressives and the left to also come out and join the encomiums and the hagiography. Bernie Sanders has been praising Bush in recent days. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, when McCain died, she got criticized for saying — I think she said something like he was unparalleled example of something or another. Which was a weird word to use — because unparalleled literally means no one else on earth comes close to them.
GG: Right, right.
MH: And I just think there’s this pressure on the left also to toe this line, and a lot of American left-wing politicians do play the game and go along with it, maybe because they are worried about being accused to be unpatriotic.
GG: Right, well, because politicians by their nature don’t want to be the target of the attacks that you were the target of over the last 48 hours because of the things that you wrote. I also, though, do think that there’s a particular Trump angle here that we shouldn’t overlook which is that part of the opposition, the media opposition, the Democrat opposition, the Democratic opposition to Donald Trump is to kind of whitewash and revise the pre-Trump history in the U.S. —
MH: Very good point.
GG: — to say that kind of all U.S. political presidents used to be — even if you didn’t agree with them — ideologically noble, they abided by the rule of law, they were good patriots. Obviously I think a big part of why McCain was so beloved upon death was because he was a virulent opponent of Donald Trump to the point of asking him not to come to his funeral.
So this reference being heaped on these figures I think has a big Trump angle to it as well.
MH: That’s a good point. So let’s talk about the Bush legacy and how different he was from Trump or not. Let’s talk about George H.W. Bush.
Before we talk about the bad stuff, the overlooked stuff, I just want to make it clear and I don’t if you disagree with me, he wasn’t the worst of presidents. He did some good things. What do you think he did that he should genuinely be remembered fondly for, or which was a net positive at the time?
GG: Well it’s interesting because he was a foreign policy expert, you know, a genuine foreign policy expert, and brought into his cabinet, unlike the Reagan administration that preceded him, which were these hardcore anti-communism ideologues, a kind of realism that in a lot of ways was really welcome. And one of the things that I’m not sure if it ever made CNN’s air, it probably didn’t, that marked the Bush administration, was they were probably the most pro-Palestinian or at least willing to criticize Israel administration of the last three or four decades, to the point where they threatened to withhold funds from the Israelis if they didn’t stop being so cantankerous on the peace process, because James Baker, George Bush’s secretary of state and close friend, knew that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the perception that the U.S. was on the side of Israel, was endangering U.S. interests around the world, something that, you know, David Petraeus and others more recently have said.
You know, so I think he was experienced, competent, there were moments of decency where he kind of repudiated the uglier parts of political life and then one of the weird things is that you know the Reagan administration was full of all these tough-talking guys who like evaded war, and yet George H.W. Bush was an actual war hero. He was almost killed when his plane was shot down, and yet they always called him a wimp even though he displayed actual courage, whatever you think of —
MH: And the other realists around him were people Brant Scowcroft (General), Colin Powell (General), which was interesting as well is.
I mean Israel thing is fascinating. I remember reading that he was the guy who in the middle of one of these power struggles over loan guarantees for Israel he called himself, “one lonely guy battling against 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill,” which drove AIPAC up the wall.
Can you imagine a modern president or senator or congressman saying: “I’m one lonely guy against 1,000 pro-Israel lobbyists. I can’t imagine anyone having the guts to say that in the current climate in particular, even now.”
He also stood up to the gun lobby, which I think was worth mentioning, the NRA. And, you know, the Cold War ended on his watch, without a shot, which, you know, other presidents might have gone to war at that time.
So, look: I give him credit for that. As you said earlier, you know, give the — you know, say the good things and say the bad things.
The problem is right now, is that since Friday night, on mainstream television, in the New York Times, in The Washington Post, there has been no discussion of the bad stuff. So let me ask you: What’s the worst thing you think he did?
GG: So, I think the worst thing he did, and this is the big irony of the Trump angle, is the Iran-Contra scandal —
GG: — was although most people of, say, the millennial generation and younger never learned about it, don’t really know much about it, was a genuinely deep and profound criminal scandal pervading the highest levels of the government in the 1980s —
MH: Which actually costs lives, unlike Russiagate, as far as we know. People actually died.
GG: Yeah. Absolutely. Not only did they sell — well, they handed the Iranian government, which at the time was a declared enemy of the U.S., really sophisticated weapons, but then the worst thing that it was they use the proceeds of that money to fund death squads in Central America. And then they lied about it systematically to the Congress. It was also a violation of congressional law Congress had explicitly prohibited any money from going to the contras because of the human rights violations, that’s why they had to —
MH: And that was a Reagan story, Glenn, it had nothing to do with Bush, it was all Reagan. [Laughs.]
GG: And the thing about it was because Bush was the, you know, a former CIA director and really was a truly knowledgeable foreign affairs expert he was at the center of a lot of that, and when he became president because of how long special counsel investigations take, the special counsel investigation was going on, he stymied it every step of the way and then when he lost to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, he used his lame duck status to pardon Caspar Weinberger along with six other aides —
MH: Who was Reagan’s defense secretary.
GG: Who was Reagan defense secretary. And the special counsel at the time viewed Caspar Weinberger as being the key witness whose notes and other documents would implicate George Bush himself at the center of these crimes. So the pardons that he gave out weren’t just, “Oh we’re protecting our political aides and allies and minions which is bad enough — what George Herbert Walker Bush did with those pardons is exactly what everyone now says correctly would be an a grave threat to the rule of law and democracy.
MH: People are losing their minds now over him just suggesting he might pardon Paul Manafort. Bush actually went and pardoned the six main guys: Elliott Abrams, Caspar Weinberger, and others.
Let me just read out to our listeners what Lawrence Walsh, the special counsel at that time, said in his final report in August 1993. He said: “The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete.” He said, “the Weinberger pardon marked the first time a president had pardoned someone in whose trial he might have been called as a witness because the president was knowledgeable of factual events underlying the case.” He accused Bush of participating in the Iran-Contra cover-up.
So yes, I just, I tweeted this earlier this week which is: you cannot get mad and angry at Trump for obstructing justice, for promising a pardon to Manafort, and for refusing to do an interview with Mueller, and then give George H.W. Bush a pass when he did all of that and worse with his special counsel.
GG: Exactly. And Trump might at the end of the day equal that, maybe he may even exceed it, but as of now he hasn’t. And so to act as though Trump is this unparalleled and unprecedented threat to the rule of law, while we heap praise on George Herbert Walker Bush, even though he did exactly what everyone says if Trump does democracy will die from having done, is, I think, really disturbing.
MH: So that was the special counsel angle which was a deeply, deeply under-covered angle even at the time and now definitely now — very few people are aware of it. I’ve had people reach out to me since I wrote this column, journalists, analysts saying, “I never knew any of that stuff.” And to be honest, I didn’t know that much about it, until I started delving into the Bush presidency.
But there’s other things. I mean, I don’t want to go through everything I went through in my article, self-plug to the listeners, if do you want to read my piece that I wrote on The Intercept website, where I talk about Iraq, I talk about Willie Horton ads, I talk about the special counsel which Glenn raised.
But let me talk about a couple other things that haven’t really made it into the news and I didn’t have space for in the piece: George Bush Sr., since we’re on the subject of Trump, in 1988, the U.S. Navy during the Iran-Iraq war, shot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing 290 people on board including 66 kids. And not only was the crew never disciplined, not only was the captain later given a medal by George Bush Sr., this is what Bush said when he was asked to apologize for the killing of those Iranian civilians.
Former President George H.W. Bush: I’ll never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.
MH: Glenn, if Donald Trump had said something like that, what do you think the reaction in the D.C. pundit community would be?
GG: I mean it really is one of the most horrific and sociopathic statements made by a president, probably in the 20th century. And I mean obviously the bar for that is really high, so I don’t want to put it, necessarily, in the top class, but I mean it’s really, to this day it’s shocking to hear given that whatever the intentions were and there was a lot of debate over how reckless that was, whether it was even intentional, either they mistook it for a military aircraft — you know, dozens and dozens of children and hundreds of civilians —
MH: It’s basic compassion. We’re talking about compassion right now. Where is his compassion?
GG: I mean, right, even — if you get in your car and you injure somebody through no fault of your own, and you know, injure somebody through no fault of your own, other than negligence, even though you don’t intend to hurt them, you apologize. That’s the decent thing to do, right?
I will never apologize for the United States when there’s hundreds of innocent dead.
MH: No matter what the facts are.
GG: No matter what the facts are.
MH: That’s the Kellyanne Conway line.
GG: Exactly. And that was very — and this is what, I think, Mehdi, has been most disturbing to me, is that he very much came out of this era in which all kinds of grave evils were committed by the United States during the Cold War against their enemies based on the belief that America was so inherently good that anything that it did was justified. And that mentality was expressed in that quote that you read under the most horrific of circumstances.
So, you know, people will say: Look, if you’re the head of an imperial nation, you’re necessarily going to engage in terrible acts, you’re going to end up killing innocent people, you’re going to be using violent force under very dubious conditions. Fine. That’s exactly the reason why U.S. leaders ought to be treated like morally complex figures when they die and not embodiments of goodness, benevolence, and nobility as the U.S. media has demanded be done over the last year — or over the last week.
MH: In defiance of the evidence! So one thing that jumps out to me, what’s really weird is — this is not, some of this stuff is ancient history, in a way. I get it. The Iran-Contra stuff, if you weren’t alive at the time, if you haven’t studied U.S. history, fine. It might fly past you as a journalist.
But some of the stuff is so fresh, for example, the Willie Horton ad, it’s not as if that ad has come out of nowhere — we were just talking about it a few weeks ago when Trump ran his caravan ad, when the Republicans ran that caravan ad, everyone, including on CNN, was saying this is the most races since Willie Horton.
So it’s not as if, you know, the George Bush stuff is all ancient history. A lot of is very relevant to now. I’ll give you another example that jumped out to me, Glenn, after I’d written my piece on Saturday, I spotted, someone pointing out — that if you go to George Bush Sr.’s Twitter account on Twitter, if you go to @georgehwbush, the last tweet posted on there, by the late 41st president, is October 5, it’s a tweet to Senator Susan Collins of Maine and it says “.@SenatorCollins — political courage and class. I salute my wonderful friend and her principled leadership.”
And you know what he’s referring to.
GG: It was the Brett Kavanaugh vote, exactly.
MH: Yeah, he’s praising Susan Collins, and Susan Collins is a friend of the Bush family, and the Bushes were friends with Kavanaugh, we know that, we know George Bush, Jr. was manning the phones, trying to get votes for Justice Kavanaugh, George Bush, Sr. is saying to Susan Collins: Great job on Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
Now, the last time I checked, I thought Justice Kavanaugh was the most divisive issue in American politics today, and he’s getting a pass on that. No mention of that in any of his obituaries.
GG: I mean, Mehdi, when I started writing about politics in 2005, motivated in large part by what was my personal disgust and the growing national disgust over what the administration of George Bush 43 and Dick Cheney were doing in the name of the war on terror to civil liberties, to innocent lives around the world, to American democracy and to the rule of law.
And in every moment of all of that, when people were calling Bush and Cheney fascists, when they were saying that they were murderers when they were saying that Halliburton was co-opting U.S. foreign policy for profit, kleptocracy, all of the things that are being said about Trump, George Bush was defending his son.
Now you can say, “Well, look, I mean you shouldn’t hold that against George Bush, Sr.” But I don’t think that that’s the point. The point is that the Republican Party prior to Trump shared the vast majority of sins that are now currently attributed to Donald Trump. You can find some new ones, but he comes out of that lineage.
MH: I have two words: Clarence Thomas. Why has his name not been in the news recently? George Bush, Sr. put Clarence Thomas, one of the worst Supreme Court Justices in history, a man credibly accused of sexual harassment, onto the Supreme Court, knowingly, deliberately he doubled down when the accusations against Thomas came out, and I just find bizarre that the same Democrats that were telling us what a great moderate president he was are the same Democrats who rail against Clarence Thomas every week.
It’s just — the cognitive dissonance is amazing.
GG: It’s really — this is why, Mehdi, I’m so glad you wrote your piece. That’s why I’m going to continue to defend the right to have these discussions at exactly the time that they’re most needed, which is when the propaganda and hagiography are being constructed, what really is being demanded is that we all submit to historical revisionism — that a false narrative about history and politics be permitted to be erected without challenge or dissent.
And the fact that journalists of all people are leading the way in making that demand is deeply corrupt and offensive. And I just think that it’s incumbent upon all of us to refuse to allow them to do that.
MH: Yeah. And there’s a guy called Brendan Nyhan, I think that’s how you pronounce his name, from Dartmouth — academic on Twitter, very lively, writes some interesting stuff. He has this Twitter thread going since Trump came to power, whenever Trump does one of his absurd unconstitutional, outrageous, illegal things, he tweets: What would you say if you saw this happening in another country, which I always find interesting, I always retweet, because it’s a good point — you really can understand the Trumpism when you look at other countries.
And yet I just think of that tweet for the last couple of days, I’m thinking: What would you say if you saw this in another country, if you saw the president of a tin pot dictatorship quote-unquote in Africa or Asia die and the state media saying, “Well, he might be in heaven, he was one of the great human beings, he was a nice guy, he never did anything nasty.” We would be laughing. We would say, “Oh that’s a country with no free press, oh poor old souls you know being forced to say all of that stuff, and yet that’s what the U.S. is doing now.
GG: I mean, I would pity the people I watched on TV having to do that right? You’d feel like almost like sorry for that — yeah, yeah, yeah.
MH: So let me ask this before we wrap up: Henry Kissinger is going to die soon, he’s a very old man, and when he dies.
GG: Mehdi, first of all, do you promise that’s going to happen?
MH: Well, I mean, I can’t control these things but I think human biology will kick in at some stage. What will happen will he goes from the scene? What’s going to be — he dies on a Friday night, like George Bush, Sr., what is the CNN headline on Saturday morning?
GG: Oh I absolutely think like foreign policy guru, or — ?
MH: Really, even Kissinger, you don’t think we’ll get a little bit of some of the shit he did?
GG: No, no. I actually think.
MH: Really? Oo. I hope you’re wrong.
GG: No, I’m not wrong. I mean look at how Kissinger is treated now, by, you know, mainstream media outlets.
MH: That’s right, Hillary Clinton is his friend.
GG: I think the bigger test is going to be when Jimmy Carter dies because he spent the last you know two decades of his life being very critical of Israel, being an outspoken critic of the United States and its hegemony.
MH: That’s good point.
GG: That I think is the more interesting question.
MH: Well, I think it’s a double-whammy with Jimmy Carter. Because it’s not just OK he’s moved to the left, and people don’t like the left. I also think: One thing, we’ve run out of time, but one thing we haven’t covered is — a lot of this hagiography, is always very one-sided, it’s Democrats being ordered by Republicans to line up. I don’t believe for a second that you would have the same hagiography from the Republicans if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton dropped dead tomorrow.
GG: Definitely not. Or Bill Clinton. Absolutely not.
MH: Fox News would not be sitting there saying, “What a great man Bill Clinton was.” It’s the left that always kind of kowtows to the right when they’re — on these things.
So on that note, last question, and link to Kissinger — Donald Trump, I think, will be an interesting test case. If those burgers ever get to him and he drops dead, what will be the reaction? All these people who say we must respect the dead, he’s the president; I suspect they won’t follow their own rules on Trump.
GG: Or imagine if Putin died tomorrow. Absolutely they won’t and, you know, nor should they. They should not suddenly pretend when Donald Trump dies tomorrow that a person who actually is without any positive redeeming traits was in fact a really kind and good and compassionate person just because he no longer lives.
MH: Well, to be fair, I guess when you cover Trump it’s going to be tougher. With Bush, Sr., as we’ve discussed, there were some redeeming traits as a family man and as a president. With Donald Trump not even as a family man.
Glenn, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for taking time out to join me.
GG: Thank you for finally having me on Mehdi, I really appreciate it.
MH: That was Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, co-founder of The Intercept, speaking to me from Brazil. I think Glenn’s absolutely right: There’s masses of hypocrisy going on here, and as journalists — as journalists — it is nothing other than a dereliction of duty to not hold the powerful to account, even in death. Hagiography is not journalism. And rewriting history is just not acceptable.
MH: That’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show.
And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com.
Thanks so much! We have one last show left for this season before Christmas. Do tune in.