harry hits the road


Chapter 4: Bush #41

I awake on the second morning of my road trip wondering whether it’s such a great idea to pay a call on the old man after all. I don’t want to come off as a brown-noser. Plus, my head and body ache from the events of the preceding twenty-four hours. The June monsoon is pouring away. I could beg off on account of the weather, spend the rest of the day recuperating under cozy cotton covers.

To my chagrin, the microscopic little bastards with ice picks refuse to let me off the hook. They drive me out of bed and down to the Nonantum Inn dining room for a jug of black Joe. They hammer in the point that canceling at the last minute would be bad inexcusably bad form, physical ailments and political misgivings be damned.

Besides, this is show time for the one man traveling broadband. It’s my first on the road opportunity to shoot a Flip video all by myself. It’s time to put up, or shut up and drive back to Sag Harbor with my newly wired high tech tails between my legs.

I down another Joe jug for good luck and good measure, pull on a hooded jacket, and dash through the rain to my Smart Car so I can keep my 11 a.m. appointment with George Herbert Walker Bush, the forty-first President of the United States, known to family and friends as #41.

After an annoying winding drive behind a tourist trolley along the Atlantic Ocean, I arrive at the Bush compound. It crouches on a rocky promontory called Walker’s Point in honor of the family’s maternal lineage. There’s a two-story brown shingled main house adjacent to a cluster of similarly styled one and two story cabins, a car park, and a steel pole flying the American flag.

I stop at a shingle-sided security booth at the entrance to the compound. A young man in khaki trousers and a white golf shirt checks my credentials. A steel gate slides open, and I rumble through, only to come upon a surprising sight right alongside what I should’ve expected.

Underneath the awning of the car park, there’s a golf cart with a “Bush/Cheney” bumper sticker. Call that par for the course. In the next space, however, there’s a Smart Car just like mine save for the color, which is pure white rather than Pure Sport turquoise.

Another young man in khaki trousers and a white golf shirt appears in the driveway. He informs me that the white Smart Car belongs to the former First Lady, Barbara Bush. Then he ushers me into the kitchen of one of the two-story cabins, where he offers me tea and computer access while I await my scheduled audience.


At quarter past 11, I’m summoned upstairs to #41‘s summer home office. The epitome of WASP understatement, it’s plank floored and throw-rugged, and only sparsely furnished with a leather-topped desk, a couple of armchairs, and some side tables crowded with silver framed photographs. A picture window provides a commanding view of the cove where the former commander in chief keeps his power boat.

 I can’t help but do a double-take at the sight of #41. He’s slouched down, half reclining, in a padded swivel chair behind the desk, his back to the picture window, wearing a tan cotton turtleneck, a blue cardigan sweater, and the khaki trousers ostensibly requisite for his staff. At age 85, he looks remarkably like he did during his White House tenure from 1988 to 1992. His hair’s thinned and grayed, but he still has a preppie cowlick on the top of his head and a boyish glimmer in his steely blue eyes.

George H.W. Bush and HH3

“Hurt!” #41 exclaims. “How the heck are you?”

“Just fine, Mr. President,” I lie, reaching across the desk to shake his hand. “Nice to see you, sir.”

I sit down in one of the armchairs, and ask for permission to record our visit with my Flip camera.

“Sure,” #41 replies. “What’s that thing you got there?”

I turn on my camera, hand it over, and invite him to film me.

“Amazing,” #41 says, peering through the view finder. “And this will be recorded?”

“Yes, sir.”

#41 hands the camera back, and I replay the segment he’s just shot. The sound is clear, the picture quality sharp. I figure all systems are go. I decide it’s time to launch into a politically correct speech I’ve been rehearsing for several days, but before I can get a word out, #41 gets personal.

“I’ve always had great affection for the Hurts,” he says. “When we first moved to Texas, your dad was kind of a big shot around Houston, and he was always very nice to me. You don’t forget that sort of thing.”

“Yes, sir... I mean, no, sir.”

Already edgy, I now want to hide under the seat cushion. Like George H.W. Bush, my late father, Harry Hurt, jr., was a Navy aviator in World War II who went on to become a Texas wildcatter. The differences between them were regional, generational, and financial. #41 was born in Connecticut in 1924 to a wealthy and powerful U.S. Senator. My father was born in Texas in 1899 to an accountant. But both were raised to be gentlemen of the old school.

“Your dad was a wonderful guy. How old would he be today?”

“He’d be 110.”

“About the same age as my mother. She was born in 1901. And your mother? Still alive?”

“She died in 1993.”

“Magee was her name, wasn’t it? Nice gal.”

“Thank you sir,” I say, cringing.

In fact, my mother, an alcoholic former New York debutante, had wreaked deadly havoc on the family, but she had lots of fans outside our house. During the early sixties, she persuaded my father to join the few openly Republican voters in Houston, a conservative Democrat stronghold. Though they were hardly fat cat campaign contributors, they helped muster support for #41’s successful Congressional race in 1966 and his subsequent presidential races.

“As far as age, you’re where now?” #41 asks with his familiarly loopy syntax.

“Five years behind George, three ahead of Jeb.”

Of course I’d taken a far more leftward path than the Bush boys. In college, I became an ant-Vietnam War protester, and worse, a journalist. During that period, #41 served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. To the consternation of my parents, I engaged in at least two spirited country club poolside arguments with him about defending Richard Nixon long after the Watergate break in and the discovery of the White House tapes.

“Mr. President, I don’t know if you remember, but you and I have had our political differences in the past,” I say.

“Where was that?”

“At the Bayou Club, sir, in Houston.”

“Oh, yes. Wonderful place.”

Though the overall aim of my road trip remains as clouded as the weather, I actually do have a purpose in paying a call on #41. I get to it by way of a little more background. In the summer of 1989, I wrote a first person piece for Newsweek about “pre-enacting” the frenetic regimen of jogging, swimming, tennis playing, boating, golfing, and horse shoe pitching #41 pursued during vacations in Kennebunkport at age 65. I was age 37, and it wore me out.

On June 12, 2009, just 17 days prior to my visit to the Walker’s Point compound, #41 celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday by jumping out of an airplane with the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army’s parachuting squad. The respect I’d gained for him twenty years ago is morphing into true admiration, and I tell him so.

“Mr. President, what I came here to say is that you are my new hero bar none. There’s the old saw about guys who won’t quit doing what they want to do until their parachute doesn’t open at age 90. You’re still opening your parachute at age 85.”

“It was easy,” #41 replies, grinning. “I’ve done about four jumps with the Golden Knights. I do it in tandem now. I used to do solo jumps, which is much more exciting. I think they’re saying, ‘We gotta watch out, the old boy’ll forget to pull the rip cord.’

‘You can say, ‘Why do I do it?’” he continues. “Well, there’s two reasons. One, you still get a charge, a physical charge. At 85, that’s not bad. And secondly, it sends a message that literally resonates around the world because I was president. Just because you’re an old guy, that doesn’t mean you have to sit there drooling in the corner and you can’t do interesting things or fun things.”

#41 adds that his parachuting had earned enthusiastically positive reactions all over the world, though not on the home front. “We jumped right over here in Kennebunkport near the church,” he tells me. “Barbara said, ‘It’s good you’re doing that. We won’t have far to move you.‘ I said, ‘Oh, come on, Bar.’”

I allow that his parachuting exploits fit right in with the theme of my road trip in the Smart Car. I brief him on my itinerary, concocting a fanciful schedule of jobs and activities I haven’t actually planned, at least not yet, winging it all the way from Maine to California.

#41 in Smart Car

“What fun!” #41 exclaims.

He immediately offers to set me up with the Golden Knights if and when I pass by Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “It’s very safe,” he insists. “They’ve got 1,000 jumps per jumper, and they’d love to have you. Anything about them that’s publicity is good. It’s very easy to do. All it takes is a phone call on our end.”

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” I say, wondering what the hell I’m getting myself into. I quickly change the subject to #43. “So how’s George?”

In January 2000, I wrote a cover story for Travel & Leisure Golf about George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, entitled “Policy, Schmolicy: How’s His Short Game?” We did a 20 minute telephone interview, but did not meet face to face.

“George is fine. He’s out of politics and very happy. I think he’s glad to be out of the crossfire. He doesn’t criticize his successor. I’m proud of him for that.”

I squirm in the armchair. That last remark was obviously a back-handed slap at former Vice-president Dicky Cheney who’s been vociferously criticizing President Barack Obama on the political talk show circuit.

As a reporter, I know I should follow up. I hated virtually everything about #43’s administration, Cheney especially. In my view, the way they justified the invasion of Iraq with bogus intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was shameful and arguably criminal. Although I don’t expect #41 to condemn #43, I’ve heard he’s privately very critical of his son, and as always, extremely competitive. But I’m getting edgy again and a little tongue-tied.

“George goes down to that ranch of his, little ranch in Crawford, Texas,” #41 says, making a subtle dig without my prompting. “It’s 100 or 103 degrees or something.”

“I don’t know why he goes there,” I say. “Do you?”

“He loves it. He loves the outdoors. He likes the trails, and he likes fishing for bass. He likes everything about it.”

I ask about Jeb Bush. The week before the 9/11 attacks Jeb and I played a four hole match at his home course near Miami for a cable television show about golf and business. I know that the now former Florida governor had always been considered the real shining star of the family prior to his older brother’s ascension to the presidency.

“Jeb is great,” #41 says, his voice rising. “He’s coming up here soon. And his political days are not over -- I hope.”

Still upset with myself for wimping out on the Cheney topic, I try to steer our conversation back to politics. I say that I fear for the future of the country given all the financial upheavals and the still uncertain effects of Obama’s trillion dollar bank bailouts and economic stimulus packages. But I go semi-brain dead again and neglect to note that the bank bailouts actually began in the waning days of George W.’s administration with the TARP program. Maybe the young men in khaki trousers slipped Republican sympathy powder in my tea down in the waiting room.

“I’m very worried about all this spending,” #41 confides. “I don’t know where it ends up. That troubles me.”

We go on to talk briefly about Iraq, where he thinks the situation’s improving, and Iran, which he’s not so sanguine about in the wake of a government crackdown on people protesting alleged ballot box fraud in the recent presidential election.

“It’s terrible, terrible,” he says. “I don’t think it’s over. Hopefully, they’ll find a way to bring about change there. Ahmadinejad does not inspire confidence in me.”

Suddenly, I hear words pop out of my mouth I’d never dreamed of uttering unless, as I suspect, my tea’s been spiked.

“Mr. President, I’ve got to tell you, as time passes, I think you’re sorely missed, your wisdom and your stewardship.”

“Well, you’re nice to say that,” he replies. “It’s hard to believe people even know I existed, it’s been so long ago. Barbara and I are totally retired and drawn back. We love Texas. We spend seven months there and five months right here.”

#41 swivels in his chair. “So how are you fixed for marriages and everything?”

The Bushie non sequitur throws me for a loop. Blushing and coughing, I tell him I’m recently divorced with a 11 year old son, Harrison, avoiding mention of Muse in the interest of being verklemmt.

“Hope everything’s amicable.”

“Yes, sir,” I lie. “It is.”

“Good. Why don’t we go outside and take a look at this Smart Car of yours?”


Moments later, #41 and I are huddling beneath a golf umbrella amid the continuing rain  As we cross the driveway. I notice that he’s a little stiff legged and gimpy, the first signs of advancing age he’s shown all morning. Although I subsequently learn through a mutual friend that he’s lately had to resort to using a walker, he climbs into the front seat of my Smart Car without apparent difficulty. It quickly becomes clear that he’s not yet ridden in his wife’s Smart Car.

“Thing’s pretty roomy,” #41 says with evident surprise. “Barbara loves hers.”

George H.W. Bush and HH3

He glances down at the floorboard in front of the passenger seat. “Turtles!” he exclaims, chuckling. “They gonna make it all the way to California with you?”

“Guess we’ll see, Mr. President.”

I hand my still camera to one of the young men in khaki trousers, and pose beside #41 in front of the Smart Car.

“I’m glad you came by,” he says. “Give my best to Harrison, will you?”

Suddenly, a flood of warm feeling comes over me. Must be the spiked tea again. Whatever I thought about his diehard Republican loyalties and the fiascos of his son’s White House, I realize that #41 is a truly decent and caring human being.

I startle both of us by giving him a quick hug. Then I slip behind the wheel of the Smart Car, waving good-bye. As I head back down the driveway, I glance in the rearview mirror and see #41 ogling the words stenciled on the wrap.

“World of Hurt,” I hear him say. “I like that.”


I leave Kennebunkport on a three hour drive north to Bucksport, Maine, where I’m scheduled to sample a job on a lobster boat dark and early the next morning. Despite the unrelenting rain, I, too, am starting to like the World of Hurt. All that changes when I check into a Best Western motel in the center of Bucksport, and feed the video footage on my Flip camera into my MacBook Pro. 

What I see on the computer screen is pretty damn close to total disaster. Although I’ve captured some decent shots of #41 outside beside the Smart Car, the footage taken inside his office shows him almost entirely in silhouette.

As a veteran videographer later confirms, the problem was the light coming in from the window behind his desk. The proper filming set up should have been light-camera-subject. Mine was light-subject-camera.

I hate myself for making such a stupid rookie mistake. If I was playing golf, I would be begging for a Mulligan, but there’s no chance of getting a do-over with #41. I call Muse on my iPhone, my blood pressure skyrocketing.

“What means when you text you make it to me?” she asks.

“I’ve made it to Maine. ME is the abbreviation for Maine.”

“You don’t say you miss me. You are already picking up chicks?”

Banner at restaurant in Kennebunkport, ME

“No, damn it. It’s not about chicks or you. I’m trying to deal with all this high tech crap.”

In between barrages of F-words, I tell her about my Flip camera woes.

“You still get your audience with the President of America,” she notes.

“Former president,” I correct. “And I blew it.”

“You act like this is the end of the world.”

“Ja!” I shout. “It is!”

Then I hang up on her.


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. George H.W. Bush and HH3 (Jim Abernathy) 2. #41 in Smart Car (HH3) 3. George H.W. Bush and HH3 (Jim Abernathy) 4. Banner at restaurant in Kennebunkport, ME (HH3).