Premiering tonight on the channel that just got through bringing us Season Two of Game of Thrones—believe me, you'll miss its brute realism—41 couldn't be a tenderer, more wart-free portrait of George H.W. Bush if one of his grandkids had put it together for a private screening on Poppy's 88th birthday. Which was, as it happens, Tuesday, and many happy returns. But that's no excuse for HBO to air nominal documentarian Jeffrey Roth's (who is he, you ask? Beats me.) feature-length Hallmark card.
There's a place for valedictories this thoroughly pablumized. Namely, presidential libraries, one venue where even mediocre ex-Chief Executives are allowed to appear in a cloud-cuckoo-land that stays unmarred by anything less than awe at their wonderfulness. But since those who don't learn from the History Channel are doomed to reruns, or however that saying goes, I'm concerned the HBO brand may give today's youngsters the wrong idea.
Few people would dispute that Bush the elder has gained a dippy appeal in his On Golden Pond dotage. He's less frantic to redeem himself than Nixon was, less eager to cash in on his lucky break than Ford was, less driven to stay in the game—at one remove—than Carter and Clinton are. A few well-chosen exceptions for humanitarian causes in tandem with Clinton aside, Bush 41 is most likely to make the news as the Thurston Howell-ish goofball who got hooked on skydiving at age 73.
Roth's movie is quite charming so long as we're following the elderly Poppy around Walker's Point, the Kennebunkport family compound where he's summered every year of his life except while on Navy duty in 1944. Steering a golf cart marked "Property of #41—Hands Off!!", the former prez natters amiably about his dogs ("I don't like cats. I don't think cats like me very much, either,") his love of speedboats, and the skydiving bit. True, his dithering lyricism about Walker's Point may remind a few cynics of the caption to one of Bill Mauldin's World War II cartoons: "Beautiful view. Is there one for the enlisted men?" Yet his attachment to the property and the family history it embodies goes a fair way toward humanizing the cocoon of privilege he's never questioned. If the sense of tradition that comes with old money didn't have its seductive side, America's patrician class really wouldn't be good for much at all.
Abetted by an evocative cartload of vintage photographs, his recollections of Andover and Yale—and, ahem, Barbara, who looks mighty saucy in a few early pics—have a Ken Burns nostalgia vibe that's hard to resist. That goes double for Bush the elder's genuinely admirable service in World War II. If the generational contrast makes you wonder what Dad really thought of W. evading Vietnam and then strutting in his flight jacket for that "Mission Accomplished" Top Gun video, rest assured that's one of many questions Roth never asks.
Things only turn problematic once we're into the messy business of Poppy's political career. Until Ronald Reagan tapped him for the Veephood, all he'd ever been elected to was two terms in Congress. He lost two Senate races in Texas before becoming Nixon's UN Ambassador and then Republican National Committee chairman. Then he was Gerald Ford's China-envoy-turned-CIA-director, lasting 14 months in one job and under a year in the other.
What that A-list and yet oddly feckless résumé suggests is a born figurehead—not to say stooge—who wasn't indispensable so much as endlessly available. As for the regard he was held in by his own party's pros, longtime GOP factotum Dean Burch's description of Bush's reaction to the Watergate tape that doomed Nixon's presidency may say it all: "He broke out in assholes and shit himself to death." Needless to say, like the word "wimp"—a dig at him so ubiquitous that it once made Newsweek's cover—that quote doesn't appear in 41.
Roth gets the 1988 election that finally put Poppy in the White House over with in an eyeblink, and no wonder. Masterminded by the late Lee Atwater, Bush's ugly, disingenuous campaign against Michael Dukakis was the real beginning of today's politics of destruction—and unless fathering W. counts, it's probably his most lasting (and damaging) political legacy. But Atwater's name never comes up, and neither does Willie Horton's. For that matter, neither does Dan Quayle's, and some thanks that is to the Sarah Palin of his day.
Predictably, 41's version of Bush the elder's presidency lingers over the first Gulf War—which, compared to his son's reckless do-over, does look judiciously handled in hindsight. He also gets profiles-in-courage points for breaking his "Read my lips—no new taxes" vow when they turned out to be needed, although Roth is hardly the guy to point out that making that pledge in the first place was about as irresponsible as campaign promises get. Yet one reason the highlight of the movie's depiction of Bush 41's administration is a montage (honest) of him greeting other world leaders in the Oval Office is that even Roth is hard pressed to find many achievements worth celebrating in those four muddled years.
Poppy himself, interestingly, awards himself the most credit for the times when he chose to do nothing. Declining to put Gorbachev on the spot by ostentatiously celebrating the Berlin Wall's fall was probably wise, but refusing to let a little thing like Tienanmen Square get in the way of our relations with China is harder to defend. Don't say he wasn't even-handed, though: I'd forgotten that, when the famous image of a lone protester blocking a tank flashed around the world, our prez took to the podium to not only note the protester's bravery but commend the tank driver for exercising "restraint." After all, stomping the gas pedal to mash the guy into hamburger might have gotten even Americans aroused enough to make Bush's passivity look a tad unseemly.
Even so, what you'd never guess from 41 is how purely inconsequential he was—a blip on the screen between Reagan and Clinton, leaving not much of a mark except for the corrosive effect of four years of uninspired stewardship at a time when our lack of a clear post-Cold War agenda would have been a window of opportunity for a leader less contemptuous of what Bush called "the vision thing." But that doesn't mean we can't wish the man's son hadn't been so hellbent on overcompensating, proving once and for all that there are worse things than nonentities.