There is no shortage of sentimentality in HBO’s new documentary, “41,” about the life of George H.W. Bush, no lack of sweet music played over archival footage, or b-roll of the churning tide at Kennebunkport in Maine, where the Bushes have their summer home. But the sentimentality plays. And the man is charming.
Bush is the last U.S. president to have served in war. A naval pilot in the Pacific theater of WWII, his Grumman TBM Avenger was clipped by anti-aircraft fire above Chichijima, and, parachute barely opening, he bailed out into the sea. Four hours later, the USS Finback found him floating in a small, inflated raft.
Later he played baseball for Yale, where he met Babe Ruth. And later still he was elected to the House of Representatives from the 7th District of Texas. He served as Ambassador to the UN, envoy to the People’s Republic of China, Director of the CIA, and when he lost the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he accepted Reagan’s offer to serve as vice president. Eight years later, he took the presidential oath himself.
As the film quickly makes clear, Bush’s military, diplomatic, and political experience is unmatched by Reagan and all the presidents who succeeded him. He was a statesman, through and through, and brought his experience to bear on the many decisions of his presidency. Sometimes he was praised for his pragmatism, other times he was criticized for it, but both praise and criticism seem to come cheap to Bush, who served the best he could in that murky and misrepresented office.
Maybe what’s so compelling about the life of a president is the great contrast between the office and the man who fills it. The Office of the President (cue trumpets) is so immense that we as citizens can’t help but fill it with all our hopes, anxieties, ideals, desires — its largeness, like the largeness of celebrity or esteem, is what we dream of against the smallness of our lives. The big secret, of course, is that the lives of presidents are just as small, just as painstaking in their minutiae, their alarm-clocks, their fish-hook collections, their family, their love. And it’s this simple but powerful contrast, portrayed simply, that makes “41” a worthy biography.