MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Former President George H.W. Bush turned 90 years old yesterday. And I think it's fair to say that he celebrated in a way that most 90-year-olds do not, by skydiving near his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. The 41st president's legacy is also being celebrated with a new documentary, "41 on 41". The film dives into the president's personal life and political life with 41 people who know him best - his children and grandchildren, former aides, columnists and other former presidents. The film airs this Sunday on CNN, and here to tell us more is the executive producer who is none other than our own Mary Kate Cary. She is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and she joins us often to talk about politics and the power of words. Welcome back Mary Kate. Thanks so much for joining us. Congratulations.
MARY KATE CARY: Thank you very much. I've been looking forward to this day for a long time.
MARTIN: This was your idea.
CARY: Yes it was. You know, I lost my father when I was in my early 20s and shortly after that I became a speechwriter for George Bush. And I started picking up stories from him and lessons from him, a lot of which are in this film. And I wanted to figure out a way to get those stories to other young people and learn all the things about his good humor and his character and his integrity. And as I got older and worked for him longer I realized there were a lot of people with great stories like mine. And I thought there must be some way to sort of magnify the narrative as they say and tell it in a way that was bigger than just me.
MARTIN: The film does two things. It talks a lot about who he is as person and it does talk a lot about his political style. So I just want to start with the politics. I just want to play a clip from his early political life as a congressman in Texas. He voted in support of the 1968 fair housing act, at a time when a lot of people in his district did not necessarily cotton to this. And I just want to play a short clip from Susan Baker. She is the wife of - of course, James Baker, one of the president's oldest friends and closet political Allies. He was a former secretary of state, former secretary of the treasury. And this is Susan Baker talking about the issue. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "41 ON 41")
SUSAN BAKER: George Bush got a lot of flak from his district. There was still a lot of bigotry and a lot of discrimination in Texas, and the South. 'Cause people wanted to be able to exclude people from neighborhoods if they were not of their same race or their same creed. And this law was going to abolish that and make that illegal. And he just said I am going to support it regardless of the fallout.
MARTIN: Susan Baker also goes on to make the point that he did lose donors and he did lose some support because of that. Why did you want to include this story?
CARY: I liked to because we heard the story from so many people in different interviews. Roger Ailes knew about it, Bill Clinton remembers being in Arkansas and noticing a young freshman Congressman from Texas who voted in favor of the open housing law. Mrs. Baker was there in Texas and saw it on the ground, Saw the donors pull out. We were able to have parallel stories that kept going later in the documentary where he did the same thing. Whether it was the 1990 budget deal or the not dancing on the Berlin wall when it fell. He was always choosing to do what he thought was right, rather than what was politically popular.
MARTIN: One of the points that people make over and over again - he's a really nice person, you know. It's not a quality that people associate with political leaders. And you interview people who are White House butlers, the Secret Service agents who protected him, fishing buddies and people like that. But I think one of the more touching stories is one that's told by his grandson, Pierce, who had crashed his boat and everybody knows the president knows that he really loves that boat. And Not just that, on the same weekend he took his grandmother's car, Mrs. Bush's car, without her permission and she did not appreciate that. And made her thoughts know. He was in his early twenties at the time, and he was so upset that he was crying and so he said he went to his room and there he found a note from his grandfather and here is that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "41 ON 41")
PRESIDENT GEORGE HW BUSH: (Reading) Pierce, I remember days when I felt I could do nothing right but then the sun would come up and a bright day would embrace me. Do not worry about the boat or car incidents, you are a good man who got a bad bounce, but all is well, believe me. I hate to see you worrying in doubt. You brighten my life so forget yesterday and today's little incidents. You 'da man, and I love you. Gammy does too. Gampy
MARTIN: He still seems like he wants to cry.
CARY: Yeah he was close.
MARTIN: And he's reading the note, he had it in his pocket. And he talks about how he has kept that note. You had a whole sequence in the film about those notes. The Man seemed like he was writing notes all day long.
CARY: In the midst of pandemonium he would sit down and dash off notes to people. We could've made an entire documentary of nothing but people reading us, just like this, pulling them out of their pockets, notes from George Bush. David McCullough, the great historian, we interviewed him and he said if you want to take the measure of George Bush look at the notes he has written people and that will tell you the story of his life. When Barack Obama talked to us he said George Bush has this reputation, like you were saying Michelle, for being such a nice guy. And the notion is how did a nice guy get to be president of the United States?
MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the piece is that, that desire to use personal kindness was not just for his family but was also a tool of diplomacy. Now you know, some people feel like that's not the way it's done right? That that's just - some people think that's naive. Like what do you mean personal friendships are so relevant? So who cares? I just wanted to ask what you came away with after having reported this piece. I mean what do you think?
CARY: Bob Gates told us that by the time he came into office he had an international web of people all over the world, who had become his friends through things like you're saying, these, hey how's the weather today phone calls. And yet when the chips were down home they were always going to do what was in their national best interest. But they were willing to sign on to say the coalition in the first Persian Gulf war, because they knew George Bush and they trusted him. And they were doing things out of friendship for him. If it aligned with their national best interest, and I think that's what we are not seeing right now. Just the other day the European Parliament contacted me to see if there was something we could do together with this to show this in Europe for the countries to work together within the E.U. I was very touched by that - you know that's the kind of thing people can learn from George Bush. I think is his ability to use personal diplomacy to affect a greater outcome for peace in the world.
MARTIN: This film very much has a point of view. I mean the fact is you are a former speech of President Bush. He is clearly somebody very dear to you. Tell us what it is you are trying to accomplish with this film, in addition to showing the president and his family how much you appreciate him of course.
CARY: I'm trying to get across that it's not quaint or naive to treat people decently, to behave with integrity, to have good humor as you go through life. That's the way forward in Washington for the next generation. And to have people who are committed to public service like he was and to treating all people whether they're the White House butler or the Queen of England the same - that's the way forward in Washington and I think that's the kind of future that young people deserve rather than what we've got going on right now where nobody's talking to each other.
MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, Bush 41. She is the executive producer of the new film "41 on 41." It's about his life and legacy, the film airs this Sunday on CNN. Thank you Mary Kate Cary, I know you’re up in Kennebunkport, Maine helping the president celebrate his 90th birthday.
MARTIN: I hope you'll convey our best wishes to him.
CARY: I will be happy to do that. He's doing great. So thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.