What a shame that the day after we learn HBO’s “Game of Thrones” featured the head of President George W. Bush on a spike the network unveils a kind-hearted documentary about his father, President George Herbert Walker Bush.
“41,” debuting at 9 p.m. EST tonight, lets Bush the elder recount his remarkable life in a mostly apolitical fashion.
HBO is notorious for its liberal bias, but “41” stands as a very stark exception. The former president narrates his own story, and no other talking head is on hand to criticize him or put his political life into negative perspective.
The word “hagiography” doesn’t quite fit here. Bush is too humble to actively toot his own horn, either about his bravery in World War II or his ascent to the highest office in the land. But what emerges is a toothless portrait all the same, voiced by a man lacking charisma as well as an outspoken nature that might make such a single-minded documentary soar. And it’s clear the off-screen questions rarely push the subject far enough to yield penetrating answers.
Why would a documentary covering someone like Bush spend more than a few seconds on his affection for dogs and bland memories of his days in Kennebunkport, Maine?
In short, "41' is a rather dull presentation even while it affirms the decency of a man overshadowed by the more ideologically partisan politicians who came in his wake.
“Poppy,” as he was called for much of his life, grew up nestled in a warm, supporting family and ended up creating a similar family structure years later.
We hear a short but tender recollection of how Bush first met his future wife, Barbara, and we watch the glamorous mom caring for their children.
Bush's World War II service found him parachuting to safety after his plane was seriously damaged by anti-aircraft fire. He calmly recalls being shot down and refuses to paint his actions as heroic. He was from another generation, and that simply wasn't done. The more we learn about Bush's stoic parents, the clearer that becomes.
Along the way we watch Bush draw from an inner well of courage to discuss losing his daughter, Robin, to leukemia.
“I couldn’t even talk about it for years,” he says.
Bush later entered politics with some hesitation, but a combination of hustle and savvy began what would become a historic life in public service.
The documentary dutifully recalls the key moments in his political life, especially his single term as president in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. And Bush has few regrets about his decisions, particularly the one when he led the world against Iraq.
"This was a just war," he says, while adding he could have faced impeachment if the war hadn't gone as planned.
Other decisions had more damaging impact on his political life, like his infamous "Read my lips" promise regarding tax hikes.
"There's no question it hurt," he says of breaking his tax pledge, as was the way he theatrically announced his decision. But he doesn't regret his actions. "No ... it was right."
He's less sanguine about losing the White House to Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992. Bush says there was "almost unanimity in the press corps that I should lose and that they were for him, and that makes a big difference," he says.
The former president can't hide the hurt regarding the defeat, particularly over the man who helped make it happen - third party candidate Ross Perot.
"He cost me the election, and I don't like him. Other than that I have nothing to say," he says.
"41" hints at Bush's current frail condition. He’s in his 80s now, and Parkinson’s disease has robbed him of some movement. But there are ways he remains active as ever.
“With boats, I’m still in the game,” he says, alluding to how his body no longer lets him move as it once did to play the sports of his youth.
"41" cries out for other voices to flesh out the subject. Bush simply lacks the creative constitution to give flavor to the more important chapters in his life. Even recalling the nail biting moments before the 1988 elections Bush offers only bland memories about his state of mind.
Give HBO credit for launching such a project, one that pays respect to a man of the right without feeling the need to demean or reduce his life story in any cheap fashion. But "41" remains a tough sell even for conservatives who long to learn more about the man whose family had such an impact on history.