“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time, they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support.” So said Jeb Bush last week, an observation that drew predictable ire from precisely the right-of-right Republicans he was describing. Yes, George H.W. Bush honed the skill of compromise in ways that would be hard to emulate now. He also had moments of recalcitrance and hard-decision-making, as he recalls in Jeffrey Roth’s stubbornly superficial documentary, 41, airing on HBO this month.
Indeed, the film works hard to say little that you don’t already know. He appreciates the privilege of his childhood, loves his boats (and sees in them a helpful metaphor, about “learning the currents”) and his wife, and he admires Ronald Reagan to this day (“He was so much better than I at getting the American people to do things”). He also believes he was right not to travel to Berlin when the Wall came down (“Everybody’s got certain levels of respect and pride,” he notes, “And for me to stick my finger in the eyes of Gorbachev or the Soviet military made no sense at all”), despite chiding at the time by Congressional Democrats George Mitchell and Dick Gephart and Lesley Stahl to boot (not that Bush keeps accounts). The film supports his version of the history he helped to shape, illustrating with exceedingly standard footage of Tiananmen Square or Saddam Hussein. “He was the epitome of evil for me, the way he treated his own people. I saw nothing redeeming about him. I think the feeling was mutual, incidentally,” Bush sort of smiles, in a moment that’s not a little discomfiting.
Such instances are odd. But the film is odder still in what it omits. No mention of Dan Quayle or Willie Horton or anything else about the 1988 election, or raising taxes in 1990. Really, where’s Barbara when you need her?