On Wings of the American Spirit

On April 12 the National World War II Museum in New Orleans paid tribute to former President George H.W. Bush by singling him out for their American Spirit Award. “The purpose of the award is to honor individuals who exemplify the core values that were critical to the success of the Allied war effort and that continue to hold our nation together whenever we face great challenges,” says museum president Gordon “Nick” Mueller. “Those values include teamwork, optimism, loyalty, courage and sacrifice—all of which Bush has demonstrated to an exceptional degree during a lifetime of honorable service to the country that began during World War II.”

Walt Harrington, the author of our cover story “The Once and Future President” (P. 30), echoes Mueller’s assessment of Bush’s character: “You can agree or disagree with his politics, but he strikes me as a genuinely decent human being. He grew up in a world of upper-class privilege that included a sense of noblesse oblige—the expectation he would contribute to the public good, and he has done that again and again in his life.”

Harrington, once a star reporter for The Washington Post Magazine and now an author and journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a hard-boiled skeptic whose high opinion of Bush was hard won. In 1986 he interviewed more than 80 people for an in-depth profile of the then vice president on the eve of his successful campaign for the presidency. Bush declined at first to submit to more than a perfunctory inter­view himself and relented only after Harrington agreed to spend five days in Midland, Texas, then the home of George W. Bush, who was assigned to check out whether he could be trusted to do a fair story. George W. reported to his dad that Harrington was OK, and the door swung open to the greatest access Bush had ever given a reporter for a story.

When Harrington visited the former president in his Houston office to interview him for World War II, Bush recalled that long-ago Midland pilgrimage: “My favorite story about you, Walt, is when you were visiting George W., you saw his Bible on a table in his house and asked about it. He replied, ‘I have read it cover to cover, and it wouldn’t hurt you, Walt, to do the same thing.’”

“It’s a true story,” Harrington says, laughing.

Now that Bush is out of the political fray, Harrington found him to be more self-reflective. “He’s a guy who is comfortable in his own skin. During World War II, he proved he was just as good as people who didn’t grow up eating with a so-called silver spoon. He has put to rest the idea that only his family wealth and privilege made him the success he became. Let me tell you, there are a lot of people who did a whole lot less with a whole lot more. I consider George Bush a member of the deserving rich.”