The Scrapbook heartily recommends a new documentary on George H. W. Bush, 41 on 41, that airs this month on CNN, just in time for the 90th birthday of our 41st president. Among the talking heads brought out to kibitz and reminisce—41 of them, as you might have guessed—the popular historian David McCullough makes a charming observation, as he often does. “I’ve known or interviewed nine presidents,” McCullough says. “And if I had to pick one of them to drive from Boston to St. Louis with, it would be him.” Argue all you want—surely Ronald Reagan would tell better stories, and wouldn’t Bill Clinton be more help cruising the roadhouses?—but after seeing 41 on 41 you’ll be likely to agree with McCullough.
If nothing else, a lingering look at George H. W. Bush reminds us of a vanished code—a long-gone approach to public life that sometimes seems, in a raw and inelegant time, as remote as the conventions of a Victorian dinner party. The youngest man to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II, Bush carried himself throughout his career with the modesty and self-effacement that were typical of the best men of his generation. “Prudence” was famously the watchword of his presidency, mocked at the time by fools and demagogues, but it has a specially sweet sound in a day when “public servants,” drunk with power, commandeer the nation’s health care system, bind the spirit of enterprise in frivolous regulation, and betray allies and appease enemies in the name of leading from behind. If you don’t miss the first President Bush now, just watch 41 on 41.
We’re told that President Bush saw the documentary in a private screening not long ago. It’s a terrific movie, brisk and funny and touching, and he was apparently much moved by the 41 men and women who testify to their admiration, knowing, as we hope he does, that there were countless others who would happily do the same. “I’m the luckiest man alive,” the president said, when the lights went up. The country that was led by such an honorable man was, for a time, pretty lucky too.