NEW YORK — Tourism officials in Maine will be delighted when they see HBO’s new documentary on President George H.W. Bush.
The leisurely paced film has so many pictures of waves splashing over the rocks at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport that it’s tempting to book a vacation nearby. The beauty of Walker Point and its rejuvenating qualities for Bush since he was a boy is key to understanding him, and key to filmmaker Jeffrey Roth’s goals as a result.
“It sort of became like another character because of his love for the place and his family, and his love for his boat,” Roth said.
Granted unusual access to the former president, Roth set out to make “41” (the title a reference to Bush as the nation’s 41st president; his son was 43) a personal rather than political film. It debuts Thursday, two days after Bush’s 88th birthday.
Roth doesn’t pretend that Bush’s four years as president (1989 to 1993) weren’t the most important. But he finds rich stories in the other 84. Remarkably, the film contains footage of Bush’s rescue when his plane was shot down in World War II. Bush also talks about his daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953. Both were more formative life events than any political act.
Bush says in the film that the presidency “was the epitome of my life but not my whole life.”
Before becoming president, he was an oil executive, congressman, head of the Republican National Committee, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, liaison to China and vice president to Ronald Reagan.
Roth gets an insightful moment when he asks Bush about when the Berlin Wall came down during his presidency. Bush responds by mentioning critics who said he should have gone to the Wall to celebrate with demonstrators, and explains how the Russians might have considered that unnecessarily provocative. The savvy diplomat’s reaction showed he didn’t have an all-consuming need for attention.
He was well aware of criticism, though. Bush shares with many Republicans an aversion to the press, saying in the film that most reporters were against him when he lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton.
So it was mildly surprising that he talked at all for “41.” Bush doesn’t grant many interviews and doesn’t want to talk about politics, said film executive Jerry Weintraub, a family friend who helped shepherd “41” and is doing many of the interviews to support it.
“He’s not a braggadocio kind of guy,” Weintraub said. “He doesn’t want to sit around and talk about how wonderful he is. He never did. That’s one of the things that made him so wonderful.”
Bush was a fan of Roth’s previous film about astronauts, “The Wonder of It All,” and hosted viewing parties in both his presidential library in Texas and in Kennebunkport. That enabled him to grow comfortable with Roth, the former president said in an email interview.
“I could tell he was a decent guy, in addition to being a very talented filmmaker,” Bush said.
Roth proposed, to the former president’s chief of staff, doing a film about Bush’s life. She warned him it probably wouldn’t happen. Bush hasn’t written a memoir and isn’t now. He put out a book of letters, cooperated with his daughter Dorothy’s book in 2006 and is cooperating on a biography that Jon Meacham is writing, but that’s it.
Somewhat to Roth’s surprise, Bush said yes.
Bush said he never would have sat for the filmmaker’s interviews while his son was in office, because “the last thing I wanted to do during those eight years was complicate the life of the president.” Silence on that issue essentially continued. Bush talked about his pride in his son’s achievement but nothing about his presidency.
“There really wasn’t any conscious decision about timing,” he said. “But it’s a good thing we did it when we did because I’m tired of talking about myself now.”
That attitude — Bush even talked about violating “my dear mother’s rule about not talking about yourself” — shaped the film. Roth hoped for more interview time, but had to make do with what he had. Yet he recognized it was a special opportunity to make a film in Bush’s own voice. He even interviewed former President Clinton about his predecessor but decided not to use anybody else talking about Bush.
“He just wants to be a man who’s enjoying the rest of his life,” Roth said. “He doesn’t really care too much about how history remembers him and that tends to reflect how he’s not out there all that much.”
Once Bush agreed to participate, he encouraged Weintraub’s participation because “he didn’t want to do it and have it put in a drawer,” Weintraub said.
“Jerry was instrumental in what the showbiz types call the ‘post’ or ‘post-production’ phase — either convincing or blackmailing the good people at HBO into taking on the project,” Bush said.
Bush comes across as a gentleman in the film, an old school politician who believes in service and in getting things done as opposed to getting into mortal combat. One of the most fascinating passages, however, came when Roth asked him about his 1992 election opponent Ross Perot.
“Can’t talk about him,” Bush said, his voice suddenly frosty. “Cost me the election and I don’t like him. Other than that, I have nothing to say.”
Roth began filming in 2009, with his final shots coming when President Obama awarded Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. You can see the progression of age. Bush is seen walking around Walkers Point early, then he needs a cane and, finally, he is seen in a wheelchair as Parkinson’s Disease weakens his legs.
Movingly, “41” ends in Kennebunkport.
“This is our anchor to the windward,” the former president says. “This is where our memories are. This is where I’ve been coming all my life and will remain to our last days.”