Former President George W. Bush appeared Tuesday morning on NBC’s Today show for a fawning interview with co-host Hoda Kotb. And as with other mainstream media outlets that have allowed former Republican leaders to launder their reputations through their platforms, Kotb also allowed Bush to cast himself as a leader from a different political era before the rise of Donald Trump — without holding him accountable for just how much he did to build up the worst excesses of right-wing politics.
On its show website, NBC News is using the interview to play up Bush’s apparent sentimentality for political civility and cross-party friendships. And Politico covered the interview by focusing on Bush’s criticism of the modern Republican Party as “isolationist, protectionist, and to a certain extent, nativist.” But both outlets failed to give context to readers about the reality of the Bush-era GOP.
For example, in 2003, House Republicans changed the name of french fries on the cafeteria menu to “freedom fries” as a rebuke of France for not joining in the Iraq War, and country music stars the Dixie Chicks (since renamed simply The Chicks) faced a wave of right-wing cancel culture after they spoke against Bush and the war. And then in 2004, Bush made banning same-sex marriage a key wedge issue in the presidential election.
But what really crystalized all this hypocrisy was when Kotb asked Bush for his reaction to this year’s January 6 insurrection, when a mob supporting then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol after being inflamed for months by conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
“Voter fraud” conspiracy theories led to January 6 — but they extend back to the Bush administration
Bush, of all people, denounced the wave of “misinformation” that had overtaken so much of society.
Bush should know something about the problem of “misinformation” permeating American society, considering that he began the Iraq War based on intelligence that was not only false but for which he and other administration figures contradicted expert analysis. He also redefined torture as “enhanced interrogation” and lied about useful information being gained from it.
But perhaps even more immediately relevant to this discussion, Bush and his administration helped to build a political environment that fed the GOP base voter fraud conspiracy theories and abusive voter suppression practices, ultimately leading to the domestic terror attack of January 6.
Bush fanned the “voter fraud” paranoia
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote in January, in the wake of the insurrection: “If Republican voters today are quick to believe baroque conspiracy theories about fabricated and stolen votes, then it has quite a lot to do with the words and actions of a generation of mainstream Republican politicians who refused to accept that a Democratic majority was a legitimate majority.”
In 2000, a mob of pro-Bush GOP insiders even stormed a Florida canvassing board to stop vote counting. One of the participants in the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” Matt Schlapp, then went on to incite similar events during the 2020 election count.
And indeed, Bush was personally involved in the push for the Justice Department to pursue investigations demanded by Republican politicians, in search of alleged voter fraud. The administration eventually fired nine U.S. attorneys — at least one for allegedly failing to find voter fraud in the recent gubernatorial election — and replacing them with politically connected figures. The scandal culminated in the resignation of Bush’s second attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
Administration figures such as Bush’s first attorney general John Ashcroft and senior adviser Karl Rove painted lurid pictures of mass voter fraud and ballot-stuffing. Yet despite all their efforts over five years of Ashcroft’s effort to hunt down all this supposed election malfeasance, investigators found almost nothing. (Many cases involved confusion over voting eligibility for people with criminal records. In one case, an immigrant who had lived in the country for 10 years was deported because he had filled out a voter registration card while renewing his driver’s license.)
And two of the most prolific modern-day peddlers of Trump’s voter fraud paranoia, Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams, first came to prominence with positions in the Bush-era Justice Department. (During his tenure, von Spakovsky “overruled career attorneys who wanted to block Georgia from enforcing a strict photo ID requirement.”)
In the days following the 2020 election, both von Spakovsky and Adams went into action on Fox News, pushing baseless conspiracy theories about the vote counts in key swing states, with von Spakovsky rhetorically asking in a piece, “What were they trying to hide?”
In Bush’s case, he has a lot to hide about his own legacy of helping stoke the “misinformation” that led to mass political delusions and a war that remains one of the most disgraceful events in American history. And mainstream media outlets are glad to help him hide it, in the spirit of old friendships and professional camaraderie.
Correction (4/21/21): An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said that Adams declined to pursue voter-intimidation charges in an Arizona case; Adams was not involved in that case.