David Zurawik

CNN 'documentary' on George H.W. Bush paid for by Bush Library Foundation

I am not looking to make a big deal out of this, but I thought at least one mainstream media critic ought to point out that CNN plans to air what it's calling a "documentary" about George H.W. Bush Sunday night in prime time, starting at 9.

Except it's not a documentary as the word is used to describe the work of a filmmaker like Ken Burns or Frederick Wiseman. It's not even a documentary as the word might be used to describe an extended report of 30 minutes or so about a historic building airing on your hometown TV news station.


This is two hours of hagiography paid for by the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation. One of its two producers, Mary Kate Cary, is a former speechwriter for Bush when he was in the White House.

The film is called "41ON41" and it's filled with family members, friends and colleagues of Bush saying things like, "You can't be around George Bush and not come away a better person." (Bush was the 41st president and there are apparently 41 people saying such things about him. I stopped counting after I was told that a verse about being "true" and "pure" shaped Bush's life.)


Among the 41 are: James A. Baker III, Marlin Fitzwater, Roger Ailes, Jeb Bush, Jeb Bush Jr., George W. Bush, Dan Quayle and John Sununu.

CNN has become so confused and compromised under President Jeff Zucker that it seems to have no problem with presenting this 41-voice tribute as history.

"CNN is extremely pleased to present the first television broadcast of '41ON41,' which offers extraordinary insights to the man behind the powerful office, and his consequential presidency," Amy Entelis, senior vice president of talent and content development for CNN Worldwide, says in a press release.

"Viewers will learn the backstory to key historic moments in our history -- and will be surprised by insights from family and friends who reveal sides of their husband, grandfather, father, and friend that only people within the inner Bush family circle ever knew," her quote continues.

"The goal of this film is for the world to see President Bush through the stories of his life -- one of the most significant in our modern history," Fred McClure, chief executive officer for the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, which funded the film, says in the same release. "It is more than a recounting of history -- it is an engaging and uplifting profile of one of our greatest citizens that no American will want to miss."

Our national history belongs to all of us, and while there is nothing wrong with a rich and powerful family putting up money to create this kind of birthday gift for one of its members, it is not OK for a channel with the word "news" in its title to try and present it to millions of Americans as a "documentary" or "history."

I can't wait for CNN to air "42ON42," the Bill Clinton love song paid for by the Clinton Foundation (and all the Wall Street money that funds it) and produced by Jim Carville. That's the one that will tell Clinton's history without any mention of the intern he took sexual advantage of through his position of enormous power, the young woman his wife now denigrates and blames for her husband's disgrace.

Or, maybe they'll say even the intern's life was enriched by meeting Bill -- even she came away a better person because of his goodness and the way his life was shaped by a verse about being "true" and "pure."

I admire George H.W. Bush for some things. He was the last president to postpone his education at a prestigious college and go on active military duty to defend his country. That's something neither Clinton nor Obama -- nor Bush's hapless son -- did.


But you will forgive me if I don't get warm and squishy, and do raise questions about a so-called news channel showcasing such a whitewash of a man who led us into war in Iraq, ran the C.I.A and appears to have been up to his hips at least in Iran-Contra and Texas oil money.

For the record, here's the quote a CNN spokesperson sent me when I called the network yesterday and raised some of these issues:

The film presents a portrait of a former President of the United States and the 41 voices in the film are notable individuals who know him well, and add interesting, lesser-known insights to the personal side of an otherwise well-documented life.  The film airs near the remarkable occasion of the 90th birthday of this historic figure and, as with our other acquired CNN documentaries of biographical figures, the network will present a diverse variety of voices surrounding the film that will add additional perspectives on his policy decisions and place in history.

Again, if they want to produce and show this film at Bush's library, fine. More power to them. That's the place for such productions.

But if CNN's Amy Entelis and the guy who runs the Bush Foundation don't understand that narratives of the past told without objectivity and balance are not history but rather propaganda, I hope there are still a few readers on the Internet who do.

And I hope they will say no thanks to CNN Sunday night -- and question whether the "News" part of Cable News Network is anything but a sad reminder of what CNN used to be.