Jerry Weintraub produced his bio film on George H.W. Bush, “41” (HBO, 9 p.m.) as if it were a bouquet. In fact, it was to have been screened for his old friend and fellow neighbor on the former President’s birthday earlier in the week.
So the present includes just the most flattering view of the president who was just too nice a guy for anyone to hate too much. Unlike the PBS documentaries on presidents done for “American Experience,” which don’t allow the subject to speak for himself, this one is all Bush, all the time, narrating the whole thing, without a single other person interviewed, let alone a dissenting voice.
So it’s interesting (but hardly reliable) from that point of view. Bush hardly notices the sheer wealth in which he was born, realizes the Depression was something that happened to other people, and that privilege and duty framed his life, from boarding school to Yale to the service, where unlike most recent leaders, he was an actual war hero.
To hear Bush tell it, he singlehandedly helped make Texas a Republican bastion it is today, after losing a couple of Congressional races first. But once he was in office he was tapped by Nixon, Ford and Reagan for all manner of posts, the most important of which was the vice presidency.
Never mind that Bush argued vocally against Reagan’s economic policies while the two were still opponents in the Republican primaries (that’s never mentioned). Instead, they were allies and of like mind. When he got to the presidency he was defined by the Gulf War and a promise for no new taxes so pronounced (and so disregarded) it might have cost him the re-election. It’s one of the regrets the guy has in the film. (He’s also still mad at Ross Perot, whom he believes lost the race for him).
You forget what an inadvertently funny guy Bush was, with his odd turns of phrase and strange honesty. At one point he talks about the girls he was attracted to and names one who had a rubber bathing suit that still seems to haunt him. (Still, no mention of Dana Carvey, who took his quirks to comedic heights on TV).
The filmmaker is cowed by just being allowed to wander around the Kennebunkport compound, and asks the least pointed questions with no follow up.
Bush, for his part, is oddly detached from life, talking more about the dogs in his life than his children, though he bred a political dynasty that produced another president and a governor.
It’s the kind of thing though, that will bring a smile to his face when he sees it. But “41” is of little use as history and a sharp turnabout for what is usually a progressive and fearless documentary series at HBO (who may have allowed Weintraub to make the film, if he agreed to be subject of his own, much better, documentary film, “His Way” last year.