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WOULD PREFER IT BEING ON FOX........
November 7, 2010
With Book, Bush Is Back in Spotlight
By BRIAN STELTER
George W. Bush will end a self-imposed silence about his presidency in an NBC prime-time special on Monday, the eve of the release of his memoir, “Decision Points.” That the interviewer will be Matt Lauer, the co-host of the “Today” show, reveals calculations by Mr. Bush and his advisers, as well as a campaign by NBC.
In the past, the first interview of a controversial ex-president would be expected to go to the nation’s top evening news anchor, currently NBC’s Brian Williams. By choosing the top morning anchor instead, both sides are essentially endorsing the soft power of Matt Lauer.
“He’s an extraordinarily fair interviewer,” said Jim Bell, the executive producer of “Today” and of the prime-time special. “We’re living in a time when some of television news is partisan, and Matt and the ‘Today’ show are decidedly not so.”
That was a selling point for Mr. Bush and his advisers, who decided that “the first interview should be in a news context, with a network news anchor,” said David Drake, a senior vice president of Crown, the publisher of “Decision Points.”
For NBC, the interview — which was taped over the course of two days in Texas late last month — is a major coup. “They talked about every subject under the sun,” said Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, who observed that Mr. Bush “has things he wants to get off his chest.”
But critics of Mr. Bush — and there are many, with polls showing that most Americans still hold an unfavorable view of him — who would like to see a televised confrontation over issues like the Iraq war may come away disappointed. The tone of the prime-time special is conversational, not prosecutorial, and for that reason, “Lauer/Bush” is not likely to join “Frost/Nixon” in the public imagination.
Mr. Bell pointedly called the special “a conversation with President Bush about his book,” not just his presidency. Many tough questions are asked, and the word “torture” is used, Mr. Bell emphasized, but it comes down to tone.
Dana Perino, who was a White House press secretary while Mr. Bush was in office, said that tone was an important consideration for the TV book tour.
“He’s not interested in having a debate about the policies,” Ms. Perino said of Mr. Bush. She elaborated later: “There’s been plenty of debates about the decisions he has made. Now he’s trying to explain what he was going through, and the conditions he was working under.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, said Mr. Bush’s televised interview was not likely to deviate from the words in his memoir. But “there is some value in seeing his mood,” she said, including his attitude about the memoir itself. (Ms. Goodwin was a paid contributor to NBC until 2008.)
To get the first shot at the Bush interview, each major television network pieced together its best proposal — a “package,” Mr. Drake said — and at least one other offered a prime-time special like NBC’s. He declined to share specifics, but said “it was a close decision.”
The NBC interview is the start of a book tour like almost no other. Mr. Bush will sit down with Oprah Winfrey and Rush Limbaugh, as well as with all three prime-time hosts on the Fox News Channel this week. There will be print interviews, too, but the only one announced so far is with AARP The Magazine.
Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a newsletter about the television news business, The Tyndall Report, said he suspected that Mr. Bush and his aides were striking a balance by selecting Mr. Lauer for the first interview. “On the one hand, you’re looking for comfort,” Mr. Tyndall said. “On the other hand, you don’t want the interview to be perceived as a series of softballs.”
NBC executives privately agreed with that assessment, and said they thought that Mr. Bush would not have felt as comfortable with the network’s other top interviewers.
Asked whether Mr. Williams or the “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory pursued the interview, Mr. Capus said “I’m sure they did,” but that “Matt was the official push from NBC News and I’m thrilled that we got it.” Mr. Capus said that Mr. Lauer had a “rapport” with Mr. Bush in prior interviews.
Along with comfort, audience size was important. “Today” is both the top-rated morning show and a highly sought-after outlet for authors.
The Bush interview will be the biggest showcase in the 30-year career of Mr. Lauer, and it is certain to be one of his most scrutinized. (He declined an interview request last week; a “Today” spokeswoman said he wanted the interview to speak for itself.)
Until now, Mr. Tyndall said, arguably Mr. Lauer’s biggest interview was in 1998, when he spoke with Hillary Rodham Clinton and she introduced “vast right-wing conspiracy” into the lexicon. “I think it made his reputation as a hard-news man,” he said.
Mr. Lauer has co-hosted “Today” for 13 years, and in that time the center of gravity at the network news divisions has shifted to the morning from the evening. Television executives say that he is now perched at or near the top of the A-list interview hierarchy, along with Ms. Winfrey and the correspondents on “60 Minutes.” Some say “The View,” Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Katie Couric all also belong in the same breath.
“When you look across the playing field right now, you see Larry King stepping down; you see Oprah’s show going away. Matt’s really at the top right now,” Mr. Bell said.
In 2006 Mr. Lauer signed a five-year contract extension, which would have expired in early 2011, though it has reportedly been extended beyond that date. To bolster his chances in the interview chase, Mr. Lauer had a letter delivered to Mr. Bush on the day of President Obama’s inauguration.
Mr. Lauer and NBC kept pitching. Although one of Mr. Bush’s daughters, Jenna Bush Hager, is a part-time correspondent for “Today,” that had no effect on the booking, Mr. Bell said.
Early excerpts of the NBC interview have already made news, including Mr. Bush’s statement that he was a “dissenting voice” in the run-up to the Iraq war and that Kanye West calling him a “racist” was “one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency.”
After the prime-time hour, called “Decision Points” like the book, Mr. Bush will return to NBC on Wednesday for a live interview on “Today,” in part to react to the initial interviews. Later, NBC’s cable arm, MSNBC, will both repeat the prime-time special with Mr. Lauer and show an additional hour of interview excerpts. Asked if that crossed the line into outright book promotion, Mr. Capus said: “That’s not our role. We’re there to do a journalistic interview.”
Each Bush interviewer gets a special bite of the apple this week and next. Ms. Winfrey, whose taped interview will be shown Tuesday, visited Mr. Bush’s parents in Kennebunkport, Me. Mr. Limbaugh will have the first live interview with Mr. Bush around noon on Tuesday. Sean Hannity will interview Mr. Bush on the radio Tuesday afternoon and on television Tuesday night.
Of the other Fox hosts, Bill O’Reilly’s turn is Thursday and Greta Van Susteren’s is Friday. Ms. Van Susteren is the only interviewer to visit Mr. Bush’s archives at Southern Methodist University.
Later on, there will be interviews on “CBS Sunday Morning,” with his wife Laura; on CNN in prime time, with his brother Jeb; on “Fox & Friends”; and, on Nov. 18, on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Even last week’s release of Bush interview excerpts by NBC and by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was tightly controlled to whet the appetite of book buyers.
Ms. Perino, who has been working for Crown since June on the book rollout, said Mr. Bush’s solitude since leaving office had heightened anticipation about the memoir and the interviews. “Had he been out there talking and opining regularly, then there probably wouldn’t be as much interest,” she said.