Editor Evan Smith talks about interviewing George H. W. Bush.
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texasmonthly.com: Since he left office, President Bush has kept a low political profile and kept his opinions out of the news, especially debates over Iraq. So why do a cover story on him now, when the story is his absence from the news? How long ago did the idea first come up?
Evan Smith: We’ve been trying to get the former president to talk to us for a long time—he doesn’t do much press these days, but everyone’s curious about him and his life today, which is why we kept at it. For this issue, we wanted a cover story that would appeal to as many people as possible. There’s an old saying, attributable to Dick Stolley of Time Inc., to the effect that politics is one of the worst subjects to put on the cover in terms of newsstand sales. We hoped to minimize that by featuring a recognizable personality, or something controversial. We made a run, actually, at Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks—we asked her to pose wrapped in an American flag, and we thought the line on the cover would be, “The War Over the Dixie Chicks.” She said no, or rather her publicist did, because they had the Entertainment Weekly cover cooking. I’d be really, really bored by the story, frankly, if it were on the cover of Texas Monthly now, because I think the country has moved on from that whole flaplet. In any case, when the Chicks nixed the idea, I decided to try yet again with the former president, and this time, improbably, he bit.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think he was willing to talk to Texas Monthly after turning down so many interview requests? Was it hard to get access to Mr. Bush, and how long did your interview last?
ES: I don't know, honestly. Maybe they wanted me to stop calling. But it makes sense. He knows us, knows we're going to treat him fairly. We just did a Karl Rove story that was viewed as evenhanded. And this is a good time to be a Bush—43 is popular after the war, and Jeb has had something approaching the last laugh in Florida. Bush the elder is not a gloater, but he has to be a happy dad right about now, so why not talk?
texasmonthly.com: The structure of your story is interesting, because for the most part, you let Mr. Bush's words stand on their own. How did you decide to write the piece this way, and how well do you think it would have worked if the interview had been as brief as you expected it would?
ES: I'm a sucker for the Q&A as a journalistic form. He sounds like himself in this piece because it's him talking, not me talking about him. The unfiltered aspect of it makes it more interesting and, I think, more effective. There are phrases that jump out at you—his referring to the money he makes giving speeches as "dough." Very casual and comfortable. I'm not sure how well that translates in a traditionally assembled story.
texasmonthly.com: Were you surprised at how candid Mr. Bush was with you? Specifically, I'm thinking of his comments on the press and the Dixie Chicks.
ES: I was surprised on the Dixie Chicks, certainly. He brought them up and then used what the more genteel people in this business refer to as a "barnyard epithet." I offered to edit it out, but he wanted to leave it in. It didn't seem particularly in character for him, but what are you going to do? It makes for great reading. On the press, no, I wasn't surprised. This is a guy whose last slogan in office was, "Annoy the media. Vote for Bush." No love lost there.
texasmonthly.com: What else was especially memorable about your meeting with Mr. Bush?
ES: The items on the walls of his outer office and private office were really interesting to look at—I could have stayed there for hours poring over the pictures. Also, he was nice. Not that I didn't expect it, but we're conditioned (I am, at least) to expect famous people to be unpleasant to deal with. He couldn't have been more pleasant or more gracious.
texasmonthly.com: It's also interesting that he speaks about criticism from Martin Sheen or Barbra Streisand on a personal, not a political, level. Do you think it's part of his new outlook, concerned most with watching out for his family? Mr. Bush sounds remarkably uninterested in politics these days.
ES: He's always watched out for his family. I think he's liberated, in a sense, by not being in office—he can say what he wants without any real fear of reprisal. And I actually disagree about his interest in politics. He's intensely interested in it, only he can't or won't say much.
texasmonthly.com: What did you think about his analysis of Jeb's chances at the presidency? He said he doesn't have any hopes that the Bush dynasty will continue, but at the same time he makes a pretty decent case.
ES: Do I think Jeb has a chance? Honestly, I have no earthly idea.