NEW YORK (AP) — Former President George W. Bush's media blitz to sell his new book seems carefully designed to minimize surprises, although he got one Wednesday in a surprise rapprochement with Kanye West.
The rapper says now that he "didn't have the grounds" to call Bush a racist after Hurricane Katrina. The former president was shown tape of West's comments in a live "Today" show interview and said he appreciated West's regret.
Bush has primarily favored the leaders of their respective fields in an effort to spread his salesmanship as wide as possible: NBC News, Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh, Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno. ABC, CBS and CNN were deemphasized or left behind entirely.
In an earlier media era, Matt Lauer's one-hour taped interview with Bush would have been jealously guarded until airtime, said Jim Bell, executive producer of the "Today" show. Instead, it was sliced and diced and spread around various outlets: clips aired on "Today" last Thursday and Friday and on "Nightly News." A business-oriented response was sent to CNBC, and political comments to MSNBC and further quotes out to local NBC affiliates.
MSNBC is airing an expanded, two-hour version of the interview this weekend.
Monday's prime-time special wasn't a big seller, finishing fourth in its time slot with more than 7 million viewers, the Nielsen Co. said. That's generally a tough night for NBC, and the interview did slightly better than "Chuck" usually does in the time slot.
"We're more than thrilled with how the interview has played out," Bell said.
He said he believed Bush had a certain comfort level with Lauer, whose live interview with Bush on Wednesday's "Today" show was pointed but not combative.
The arrangements with Bush were worked out in August, he said. Although Bush's daughter Jenna Bush Hager is an occasional correspondent for "Today," Bell said she wasn't used in NBC's sales pitch and he believed it wasn't a factor in Bush's selection.
Although Bush agreed to an interview with Jim Axelrod to air on CBS' "Sunday Morning" next week, he turned down a request to appear on "60 Minutes" with Scott Pelley, said Jeff Fager, that broadcast's executive producer.
"It didn't go our way," Fager said. NBC offered a larger amount of outlets and time on the air than CBS could, since it doesn't have associated cable networks. CBS could have offered a bigger audience in prime-time, however: Sunday's "60 Minutes," featuring a Steve Kroft interview with President Barack Obama, was seen by more than 15 million people — double the audience of NBC's hour.
ABC would not detail its discussions with the Bush camp. The network could undoubtedly have offered Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos or Barbara Walters as interviewers, along with time in prime-time, "Good Morning America," ''World News" and "Nightline."
Fox News, where the Republican ex-president could expect a sympathetic audience, is getting significant face time. Each member of Fox's prime-time lineup scored a Bush interview, putting the former president on four nights out of five. Sean Hannity's first interview aired Tuesday, Bill O'Reilly is up Thursday, Greta Van Susteren is on Friday and Hannity will have a second one on Saturday night.
Fox's morning show will air Bush interview material Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week.
Bush had written that it was a low point in his presidency when West declared that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." But in an interview with Lauer taped Tuesday, West said that he spoke in a moment of frustration.
"I didn't have the grounds to call him a racist," West said. "I believe that in a situation of high emotion like that we as human beings don't always choose the right words."
Shown a tape of West's remarks, Bush said he appreciated them and forgave him.
"I'm not a hater," he said. "I don't hate Kanye West. I was talking about an environment in which people were willing to say things that hurt. Nobody wants to be called a racist if in your heart you believe in equality of races."
In a blooper reminiscent of his famed mispronunciation of "nuc-u-lar" — or perhaps a subtle dig — Bush twice referred to West as "Conway."
There was also another memorable West meltdown: He tweeted Tuesday about feeling "very used" by the interview and said Lauer "tried to force my answers. I came there with only positive intent." NBC is airing a longer West interview on Thursday, and wouldn't comment directly on West's tweets.
While amiable, Bush has carefully steered interviewers toward material in his book and does not bite on questions where he could be seen as passing judgment on his successor.
He seemed surprised, and a little amused, when Lauer asked Wednesday if he enjoyed being back in the spotlight.
"It's an interesting question, since YOU are the spotlight," Lauer said. "I've enjoyed selling the book." (The memoir "Decision Points" sold at least 220,000 copies on its first day of release).
When the sales work is done, the former president said, "I'm heading back underground."
NBC is owned by General Electric Co.
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