George H.W. Bush turned 88 on Tuesday. So you’d think that “41,” the documentary about him that airs on HBO on Thursday, would have been scheduled that night to honor the occasion. Actually, that would have been a mistake. “41” isn’t a birthday present. It’s a valentine, doilies not included.
The title refers to Bush’s status as 41st president — a designation that took on added significance when his son George W. Bush became 43d. Forty-one is a funny sort of number, and “41” is a funny sort of documentary. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Bush was a funny sort of president. He was the fairly incongruous caboose on Ronald Reagan’s train — and stalled on the tracks when Bill Clinton came along. Other than the end of the Cold War and Gulf War, “41” has little to offer on his presidency. That makes sense, seeing how not all that much happened during it.
“41” is less an example of close and personal than up-close and fawning. Jeffrey Roth directed, but the driving force behind the documentary is executive producer Jerry Weintraub (producer of the “Karate Kid” and “Ocean’s” films). A Bush family friend, Weintraub has spoken of being “so proud that our friendship includes this wonderful film about two wonderful people.”
That pretty much sums up the point of view here — though it’s almost entirely about one person, not two. “41” is more memoir than biography. There’s no narration, and Bush is the only interview subject. We don’t hear from Barbara or Dubya or “Governor Jeb” (as Bush calls his other former-governor son). No historians or rivals or colleagues provide commentary.
There’s much to recommend such an approach. Getting right to the subject, it cuts out all those self-important talking heads who tend to offer platitudes and little else. With “41,” though, it’s not such a good idea. Bush has never been a notably articulate man. It’s telling that the most famous words associated with him — “Read my lips: no new taxes” — ultimately got him into trouble. After a while, the sentence fragments and dropped first-person pronouns in “41” get a bit wearying.
Much of the documentary was shot at Walker’s Point, the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. This is the way the 1 percent used to live, right down to the ghastly interior decoration. There’s a certain nose-against-the-window pleasure in watching Bush drive around the estate in a golf cart or captain a powerboat or chat up his wife’s dog Bibi, a Maltese/poodle mix (Bush confides that he doesn’t like cats). Who among us will otherwise ever glimpse Barbara Bush’s monogrammed bath towels?
Interspersed with such views and Bush answering questions are family photos, home movies, and news footage. There’s film of his rescue in the Pacific, after his Navy plane was shot down. At Yale, we see him wearing a raccoon coat and playing baseball. He moves to Texas to enter the oil business. There’s an awkward segment devoted to the death of his 3-year-old daughter, Robin, from leukemia. He enters politics (it seems almost like a lark), then it’s one thing after another: losing a 1964 Senate race, winning a House seat two years later, serving as UN ambassador, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, US envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, running for president in 1980 and being chosen as Reagan’s running mate. Viewers know the rest.
“41” is an extremely loving portrait of a not very loved leader. It’s not that George H.W. Bush is or ever was hated. The man seen in “41” is amiable and decent and likable enough in his slightly out-of-kilter way. When a little girl visiting the Oval Office during his presidency asks if he would write her teacher a note excusing her absence, the alacrity with which Bush jumps up to do it is so endearing because the response is utterly genuine. But it’s unlikely that he’s inspired much of any emotion, really, con or pro, in anyone outside of his immediate family. Worse, the man’s just not that compelling an individual. The most famous chapter in James Bryce’s epic study “The American Commonwealth” is called “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President.” It might have been subtitled, “And Why Dull Men Are.”
Where’s Dana Carvey when you need him?