The deaths of George H.W. and Barbara Bush in 2018 generated significant media coverage analyzing their legacies. For the 11th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Bush family expert Myra Gutin and collective memory expert Janice Hume about obituary coverage of the couple and the shaping of historical legacies.
Professor of Communication at Rider University, Gutin is the author of The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century and Barbara Bush: First Lady of Literacy. Hume is Carolyn McKenzie and Don E. Carter Chair for Excellence in Journalism at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia. She is the author of Obituaries in American Culture and co-author, with Carolyn Kitch, of Journalism and a Culture of Grief.
This episode is sponsored by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
Teri Finneman: [00:00:06] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
[00:00:20] This episode is sponsored by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. For more than a century, Grady College has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They are committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
[00:00:44] News accounts of George H.W. Bush’s death and those of his wife Barbara several months earlier were filled with flattering narratives that made a point of contrasting their character and generation with the state of politics today. Politico, however, carried a sharper piece, asking if history was being too kind to George H.W. Bush.
In this episode, we examine the legacy of the Bushes and discuss collective memory and obituary culture. Our first guest today is my Myra Gutin of Rider University. She is the author of The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the 20th Century and Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch. Later in the show, we’ll visit with Janice Hume at the University of Georgia who authored the book Obituaries in American Culture.
[00:01:29] Myra, welcome to the show. What kind of legacy do you think George H.W. and Barbara Bush wanted to leave on this country?
Myra Gutin: [00:01:37] I think that they were both committed to a legacy of caring. When Bush gave his inaugural address, he spoke about a thousand points of light. And I think that he was very much committed to volunteerism. And he was also just committed to more positive things for every American, The Americans with Disabilities Act, some of the work that he did internationally, he just felt that that would help Americans. With regard to Mrs. Bush, her particular project in the White House was literacy. She felt that if people could read and write then a lot of things in the country would be better. And that became her cause celeb in the White House. It was something that she advocated right up to the time that she died. So, improving the lots of regular Americans was something important to both of them.
Teri Finneman: [00:02:36] What have you thought of the press’s coverage shaping the collective memory of George and Barbara Bush after their deaths this year?
Myra Gutin: [00:02:46] With President Bush, I think that perhaps it was a little over the top. I think that it could have been a little more critical. Now, of course, we don’t ever want to speak ill of someone who’s passed on, but I thought, for example, that the part of George Bush’s legacy with the Supreme Court is something that’s a good example here. Mr. Bush advocated and then nominated and saw the nomination of Clarence Thomas pass and he also nominated David Souter. Those two men were very much on different sides of the political spectrum.
[00:03:26] And I think that people need to understand that, for George Bush, he frequently found himself between a rock and a hard place. He was an ambitious politician, which I think that some of the press coverage left out, and he also understood political expediency. When in 1980 he was asked to be Reagan’s vice president, Mr. Reagan said to him that he would have to accept the fact that Reagan was pro-life and George Bush, who had been pro-choice his entire life, switched his position. I think that those created some real conundrums for him, but he did find a middle ground and that was pretty much where he lived his political life. It was also a time when Bush was in the White House where I think we saw pretty much the end of moderate Republicanism. Even during the 1988 presidential convention, the Republican convention, there was a decided push to move the party towards the right and George Bush found himself out of step with a lot of his party because he was always the New England Republican, even if he was living in Texas. Barbara Bush, I don’t think that we’ve really inflated her particular legacy. She did a great deal for literacy. She was someone who spoke about the AIDS epidemic long before it became fashionable. She was a strong advocate for people, and I think that that came through during her time in the East Wing.
Teri Finneman: [00:05:13] You’ve done a considerable amount of research on the Bush family. What’s something about this family that you think is overlooked or that deserves more attention?
Myra Gutin: [00:05:21] I think as perhaps many of your listeners will know, the Bushes had the tragedy of losing a young child to leukemia. Robin Bush died when she was 3 years old and both George and Barbara Bush did everything they could to try to prolong her life, taking her from Texas to Sloan Kettering in New York so that she could be part of an experimental protocol to try to treat the leukemia, which did not succeed. After that, almost every place that the Bushes went, they did a lot for whatever the children’s hospital was in that particular city. Barbara Bush very quietly volunteered in those cities at those hospitals. But, understanding children and the tragedy that they had had to deal with. They were always active in cancer-related charities. And as I said, in whatever city they lived in, they became involved with the local children’s hospital to try to help parents who were going through this terrible experience with their kids.
Teri Finneman: [00:06:32] Do you think enough time has gone by for historians, journalists, and the public to truly understand the legacy of the Bushes?
Myra Gutin: [00:06:40] Well, time has passed, of course, and we do have some perspective. I believe as the years pass, certain things will come into greater focus. When George Bush left office in 1993, I don’t think that anyone really completely appreciated how successful he had been in foreign relations. His building of a coalition to go against Saddam Hussein and combat his aggression in Kuwait was really a singular achievement of George Bush. And that was not appreciated at first because there was so much leftover feeling from the 1992 presidential campaign and emphasis on his broken promises about the economy, that those foreign achievements were obscured. I do think that right now we’re going to, in the wake of his death, we’re going to re-evaluate all of the things that he did. But I still think that those foreign achievements are going to stand the test of time.
Teri Finneman: [00:07:54] How presidents and first ladies are remembered over time is really fascinating, and surface level caricatures arise, like for instance, the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree. How do you think historians can more accurately shape and share the legacies of these political figures?
Myra Gutin: [00:08:12] Well, I think it’s a long process. I think that to do real evaluation, historians have to look at a full picture. They need to read the materials. If it’s possible to gain access to the documentary record of a presidential administration, which would be through a presidential library or the National Archives or both, that’s when you begin to see the ebb and flow of an administration. That’s when you get to see that there were certain achievements and there were certain low points as well that should be included in the portrait. I do think that historians and those of us who write about first ladies and presidents have to get away from the idea that someone is either all good or all bad because everyone is flawed. And the picture is going to have its high points and it’s going to have its low points. For example, as we look back at Gerald Ford’s time in office we think he was pretty humdrum, there was nothing particularly interesting about him. And yet we find that many of the things that he did domestically are still part of the national conversation and show us that he was perhaps a better president than we thought. So, I do think we need to take a long view. I do think that we need to read different authors and read the documentary record before we can really come to a consensus of where this particular president or first lady comes out in the flow of history.
Teri Finneman: [00:09:58] How did you get started looking into the Bushes in the first place? Why did you pick them?
Myra Gutin: [00:10:02] Actually, they were picked for me, to be really honest. I had been invited to write an essay for a book edited by Dr. Lew Gould, who at that time was the chairman of the Department of History of the University of Texas. And he asked me if I would write an extended essay about Mrs. Bush and I was happy to do it. And a few years later he was involved in a series on modern first ladies being put out by the University of Kansas Press and asked me if I’d be interested in writing about Mrs. Bush. And I said again, ‘sure.’ It turned out to take a little longer than I thought. It took a number of years to get access to some of the members of Mrs. Bush’s staff and to Mrs. Bush herself. But I finally was able to do that and to write the book that you mentioned earlier.
Teri Finneman: [00:11:01] So, let’s talk about your access to Mrs. Bush herself. What was that like to visit with her?
Myra Gutin: [00:11:08] It was great fun. And as I mentioned, I had probably been trying to get a personal interview with her for seven or eight years, but she had been talking about her own autobiography and then she didn’t want to talk to historians because she was involved in campaign activities for her son George W. Bush. So, I finally was called and told that if I would be willing to come to College Station, Texas, she would be happy to speak with me. So, I made the trip and as I was waiting to go into the interview, all of a sudden walking towards me, was President Bush and I jumped up and I said to him, ‘What an honor to meet you sir.’ And I shook his hand and I think that he thought that I was at the library to see him, but I mentioned that I was there to see Mrs. Bush and he said, ‘Oh, you’re the one,’ which made me just a little more nervous than I was.
[00:12:12] And right behind him was Mrs. Bush. She could not have been more gracious and nice. But, I do have to share with you this quick story. Before I actually got to talk to her the day of the interview the Bush family chief of staff, a woman named Jean Becker, said to me, ‘Mrs. Bush takes issue with something that you wrote about her so she’s probably going to bring it up,’ and I said, ‘That’s fine.’
[00:12:41] So, Mrs. Bush and I sit down and I said to her, ‘Mrs. Bush, I understand that you don’t agree with something that I wrote about you. If that’s true I want you to know that I will make every effort to correct whatever the error is.’ And there was silence for a minute. And she said to me, ‘You wrote that I screamed at my children,’ and I sort of looked at her and I thought, ‘Yeah I did’ and I said yes. And she said to me, ‘Well, I never screamed at my children.’
[00:13:16] I thought perhaps this was a joke, but then I realized she was quite serious about it. And I said, ‘Mrs. Bush, I’m sorry. I will make every effort to correct that error.’ About two months later, I was on a program with someone who had been on her staff, Mrs. Bush’s staff, at the White House. And I told her the same story that I just told you because I found it strange. I have three children and I can tell you I certainly screamed at all of them and I don’t know too many parents who haven’t at some point in time, I think it’s a natural reaction. But this woman had a wiser view and she said to me, ‘You need to understand that Mrs. Bush had a very difficult relationship with her mother and because of that she’s very, very sensitive about her own child-rearing practices.’ So, it was an interesting insight into Barbara Bush that I really hadn’t had before.
[00:14:17] But she was certainly willing to answer every question. As I mentioned, she couldn’t have been more gracious. And I guess my only regret is that I wish that I’d had a little more time with her.
Teri Finneman: [00:14:30] How much time did you get?
Myra Gutin: [00:14:32] About an hour, and when both she and George H.W. Bush were at their library, they always had lots of commitments and they had something else going on that day so I did as much as I could in that hour.
Teri Finneman: [00:14:47] How much pressure did you feel going in? I mean, as a historian you have one hour with this first lady. How did you prepare for that?
Myra Gutin: [00:14:57] Well, I try to prioritize my questions. I thought that if, for example, I was cut off after half an hour, these were going to be the questions that I was going to ask. So, I talked to her, since I come out of communication, about her speeches and what were the ideas behind them and who wrote them and how did she pick her speaking occasions. And then, of course, I talked to her about the various issues that she had advocated for. And at that point which was probably 40 minutes in, I felt well, if we were cut off right here, I had certainly covered the ground that I had hoped to. And she was also very generous and let me know that if there wasn’t time to cover everything that I had hoped, that I could certainly call her or I could write to her and she would answer questions in writing for me.
Teri Finneman: [00:15:56] That’s cool.
Myra Gutin: [00:15:57] It was, she was very helpful. I think she also realized that I was nervous and she did everything she could to put me at ease.
Teri Finneman: [00:16:06] Well, thanks so much for joining us today. Is there anything else you want to add about the collective memory of the Bushes?
Myra Gutin: [00:16:12] Well, I think that in this last week there’s been a more positive spin on the Bushes. And I think that that comes by comparison to the current occupant in the White House. Even people I know who really were not particularly fond of George H.W. Bush have come away and said, he wasn’t perfect, he had his flaws, but heaven knows he was an honest person. He did believe in transparency and I know that he was, it was historian Jon Meacham, during the funeral, who said that he was one of the great personages of the 20th century and he also called him the founding father of the 20th century. I think by comparison to Mr. Trump, Mr. Bush comes across as looking perhaps better than he is in the collective memory of the country. But he was in the White House during an interesting time, a bridge between Reagan and Clinton. And he certainly carried that off with a great deal of loyalty and respect for tradition and I think respect for his countrymen.
Teri Finneman: [00:17:41] Ok. Thank you so much.
Myra Gutin: [00:17:43] My pleasure.
Teri Finneman: [00:17:45] We switch now to our next guest, Janice Hume at the University of Georgia, who’ll talk with us about collective memory and obituaries in American culture. Janice, let’s start out talking about what you mean when you use the phrase collective memory and why this concept matters.
Janice Hume: [00:18:02] Yes. Well, thank you, Teri, for having me. Collective memory is the way a country, a group, a society remembers their past. Every nation has a story. And it’s important because collective memory has to do with identity and has to do with who we are, how we know who we are, and that’s based on our past. But collective memory is like a funhouse mirror. It doesn’t necessarily reflect what actually happened in the past. It reflects how we remember the past, which is really based upon what our current needs of the past are.
Teri Finneman: [00:18:45] Yeah. So, let’s follow up on that a little bit more. In one of your pieces you noted that one of the truths about collective memory is that it is as much about current needs as about the events and people of the past. So, explain more what you mean about this.
Janice Hume: [00:19:01] Let’s talk about Thanksgiving. There are two very different ways to frame the Thanksgiving story and the dominant culture frames it in a way that the two cultures got together and they held hands and they shared a meal and they gave thanks and that’s a good thing. If you look at it from the Native American perspective, they have a different story and would bring different questions to the past. So, you can see how a collective memory has to do with not only identity but power, so that is part of it. I did a big study on our collective memory of the American Revolution because the scholars in memory look at origin stories as being particularly powerful, and the American Revolution is really our first American story. And so the myths that have come down through the ages really have to do with how we identify ourselves now.
[00:20:02] So, there’s a great study that I wish I had done but I didn’t do, about George Washington and how we remember George Washington and every generation remembers him differently. In the early days, he was remembered as somebody so high on a pedestal, we could never begin to emulate him. He was the hero. And then subsequent generations remembered him for being more down to earth or, when you get to the turn of the century, he was remembered for being an inventor. Every generation remembers George Washington differently, and George Washington never changed. He was dead and buried, but every generation brings a new set of questions and remembers him differently in ways that reflect what we need right now.
Teri Finneman: [00:20:42] So, this is a good segue, talking about George Washington. Let’s switch back to talking about George H.W. and Barbara Bush. So, how do you think press coverage and public remembrances of them illustrate this concept of collective memory?
Janice Hume: [00:20:56] So, there’s a difference between collective memory and the memory of an individual who has passed away, and with a public figure like George H.W. Bush or Barbara Bush or John McCain before them, those two things merge. So, George H.W. Bush’s memory is linked with American history, so that idea of collective memory comes into play. And so it becomes very complicated for particularly a current political figure. You’re going to have the coverage really focusing in on again what we want to remember and right now what we want to remember about George H.W. Bush is that the coverage was that he was a statesman, that the good things that he did with the American Disabilities Act, how he worked across the aisle and he brought people together. Those are the kinds of things we’re hearing in this coverage because those are the things that we need and want to remember given our current political climate.
But we are such a fragmented media, so fragmented right now, that with George H.W. Bush, you also had people talking really on social media but in other places as well about his failures. So, when you have a public figure, the tendency when someone dies is to remember the good things, remember all the things that we value as a society and to sort of push back the things that we don’t want to remember. It’s more difficult when you have a political figure in the modern time, you’re going to get both the negative and the positive.
Teri Finneman: [00:22:36] Let’s talk specifically about the work you’ve done on obituaries in American culture. You note that obituaries reflect what society values and wants to remember about that person’s history and play a key role in what citizens believe collectively about their history. So, talk more about how you became interested in studying obituaries and why they matter.
Janice Hume: [00:22:58] I’m very interested in this and how it reflects our cultural values, our changing cultural values. And then in a newspaper obituary, is a news story about someone’s death. So, you get the who, what, when, where, why somebody died, the cause of death, perhaps funeral arrangements, but you also get a little synopsis about what we want to remember about someone’s life and that’s a value. And so as our cultural values change, so too have the things that we’ve remembered about people’s lives in their newspaper obituaries. And I would argue that it’s critically important in a democratic society, and a society that values egalitarianism that the value that we place on an individual American life says something about who we are as a people.
[00:23:55] So, what I did for the first, I’ve done a number of obit studies, but for the first sort of big one that I did, I read more than eight thousand obits from 1818 to 1920, specifically looking at how cultural values have changed. And on an obituary page, that ethical consideration is always inclusion, who’s included and who’s left out, because not every American who died got a newspaper obituary and not every attribute was remembered about even those who did get newspaper obituaries. So, part of it is who we value and then what we value. And so what I found in the 19th century, in the 1800s, is that people were remembered really more for attributes of character.
[00:24:41] So, men were remembered as being gallant or hospitable or generous or brave. And women were remembered for being gentle and obedient. They were remembered for keeping a clean house. They were remembered for those sorts of things. So, men and women were remembered very differently. When we move past the Industrial Revolution into the 20th century, instead of being remembered for attributes of character like being generous and hospitable and brave, men were remembered for how many years they worked and how much wealth they accumulated. There’s a very distinct change in what we valued about a life moving from the 1800s into the early 1900s. It was just striking to me. Women were remembered again in the 1800s for being gentle and pious and amiable and those sorts of qualities.
[00:25:37] But when we passed the Industrial Revolution, they were literally remembered for the men that they were associated with. There was one woman whose husband’s cousin was a wealthy industrialist. That’s how she was remembered. We didn’t even get her name. Her name was Mrs. Albert Plante. Albert was obviously her husband’s name. And then in her obit, it’s that his cousin was wealthy. So, that really is striking and interesting. Now that that began to back off and people began to be remembered as we moved into the 20th century for other reasons. So, that’s the kind of thing that I did with the obit studies, not only who was remembered, who was left out. If you were an African-American, you were typically in the 1800s remembered only if you died in an unusual way or you lived a really long time or you were in some way of service to the dominant culture. So, there’s just a rich trove of information there in an obit and believe it or not, that really shows who we are it were as people.
Teri Finneman: [00:26:57] That’s really interesting. So, let’s talk about the writing of the obituary. One of the challenges for journalists writing obituaries is the need to present an accurate description of a person’s life. Yet American culture also has a strong belief in showing respect and emphasizing the best aspects of people in their obituaries. So, what advice would you give journalists writing obits today about complex figures like politicians and other public figures?
Janice Hume: [00:27:24] A traditional obituary is different from coverage of a death in some ways, depends upon the news media outlet. I mean if you’re getting in an obit in The New York Times you’re a public figure, the New York Times is going to write about you in a sort of traditional journalistic fashion where they talk about the ups and the downs of your life. If you’re looking at a local newspaper, typically the obituary comes not from journalists. Typically an obituary is written by family members through the funeral home. And it’s paid and so the family has a say in what is happening. So, obituaries are done in very different ways. My advice to journalists would be to remember your news jobs, tell a true story.
[00:28:22] But we always remember who we’re writing for and who we’re writing about. And I would say that the news of someone’s death, we are a little bit maybe more gentle in how we present it. There are a lot of people who would disagree with me on that, but I think you tell the truth. I think you tell the story, but when you are writing about someone’s death, there are other people involved who are grieving and mourning. And I think that is always part of the equation when you are writing a story.
Teri Finneman: [00:28:56] We’ve talked about collective memory and primarily as it relates to death thus far but it goes beyond just that. A piece of yours that I love, it’s called Surviving Sherman’s March: Press Public Memory and Georgia Salvation Mythology. You talk about this long held belief in the south that Southerners bravely stepped up and helped save their communities from further destruction during Union General Sherman’s 1864 march through the Confederacy. Yet you found the reality is different from what the public has come to believe about this particular event. How and why did this happen?
Janice Hume: [00:29:31] When I moved to Georgia, I began to notice how many little towns had similar stories about Sherman’s march to the sea. Madison, Alabama, they call themselves the town that was too pretty to burn. And the myth is that the troops came and that the town was so beautiful that they couldn’t bring themselves to burn it down. And then there are other towns in Georgia, Augusta, where a woman in the town came out to meet the troops and there were some that said she somehow saved Augusta from being burned to the ground and there are just these stories all over the place. And I thought to myself, it can’t all be true.
[00:30:16] And so what we learn when we go back into history is that Sherman’s orders for his troops were, don’t burn the towns unless there’s resistance. I’ve seen the order. It’s an archive, so the troops were under orders not to burn the towns down unless the Southerners resisted. And the reality is that very few Southerners resisted, that Sherman pretty much marched all the way to the sea without any resistance. And I think, and then again this is – this is analysis, this is looking at the things that were written in these newspapers, that was a hard pill to take when you’re a Southerner and people were ashamed. And so I think that these stories began to bubble up because they gave some sense of agency to a defeated region where somehow it turns out to be a victory that these places were exceptional. And that was the reason that they were burned to the ground. And I think these were coping mechanisms I think.
[00:31:30] But these stories bubbled up as coping mechanisms. Now there’s also a dark side to that in that in the South there’s something called a Lost Cause mythology, where the South sort of stood on this idea that it was exceptional, that this was a lost cause done by noble people instead of a Civil War. And so the Lost Cause mythology has been used through the years as a way to oppress the black community. So, while we can laugh at these funny stories about all these towns that have these silly stories about how they saved themselves, it feeds into this this myth of Southern exceptionalism that has actually done damage to the culture instead of being helpful for.
Teri Finneman: [00:32:29] This case raises questions about how much of the history we think we know is actually completely distorted. Yet there’s this public belief that what appears in high school history books is 100 percent just the facts. So, how concerned should we be about this and how can historians better reach the public with more accurate readings of history?
Janice Hume: [00:32:48] When you’re a student of public memory, these stories are not necessarily a negative. Now I guess in high school textbooks, we want the information in there to be factually accurate. And so I would say for historians that as we teach in historical methods we base our history on primary sources, we make sure that we consider alternative views of what happened, that we don’t put blinders on and go back to history and look only for what we think is accurate. So, those are just good historical research methods.
[00:33:35] I think part of it is that we have those, we have accurate histories of the American Revolution, we have accurate histories of the Civil War. We have all of those things. I think what we need to do is make sure that those kinds of things end up in the high school, junior high, and elementary school textbooks. There’s great history out there. There’s great accurate history and you know we need to continue to do it, but we also need to pay attention to what’s already been done. The stories that end up in our oral histories and in our media histories those are reflective of, it’s almost like folklore and I don’t think it’s terribly dangerous as long as we don’t use it in ways that are harmful.
Teri Finneman: [00:34:30] Are you working on any new pieces related to collective memory that you can tell us about?
Janice Hume: [00:34:35] Well, I have some ideas. And I’m in an administrative position now, so I don’t have as much time to work on history as I used to a couple years ago. But I would love to take my obituary studies and rather than sort of looking at it at a macro level in terms of American culture, I would like to get into some more sort of subcultures. For example, one of the things I would love to do is to go back and look at journalism values. Journalism values as reflected in the obituaries of journalists through our history starting with the earliest journalist up to modern times, because right now the value of journalism has been brought into question and I would like to really dig into how are journalist lives remembered and how does that reflect our changing values in our industry. And I think if as you know with history you don’t know till you jump in. I think that that would be fodder for some really interesting analysis. So, I would love to do that and maybe this summer I could start on it.
Teri Finneman: [00:35:50] That would be great. Our last question for the show is always, why does journalism history matter?
Janice Hume: [00:35:57] Journalism history is so important because journalism is so important and I think understanding where we come from grounds us in the kinds of values that we need to get us through difficult times. I teach, as many of us do in AJHA and AEJMC, I teach a journalism history class to undergraduates and a lot of the students come because they want to take the course. There are always a few students who it’s just where they need an elective.
[00:36:26] They needed the time or the time was the right fit for their schedule. And every single time I teach it, I have students in course evaluations who say, this should be a required class because I think in order to embrace the critical role of journalism in our democracy is to understand where we came from and we don’t know that unless we have some credible journalism history. So, it is just critically important to me. So, that’s my answer to that last question that you always ask.
Teri Finneman: [00:37:09] Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.