Editor's Note: Julie Zann, a "Piers Morgan Tonight" editorial producer, shares her behind the scenes insight and impressions of her time spent at the Warrior 100.
I’ve just returned from the W100k in the Texas panhandle, George W. Bush’s 2nd annual 100 kilometer mountain bike ride with 20 Wounded Warriors. As someone in this business for nearly 10 years, I admit that I often get jaded from working behind the scenes. The unfortunate reality is that in the modern age of news and politics, everybody’s getting a little more trained, a little more polished when it comes to dealing with the media; it makes getting authentic moments all the more difficult. So you can imagine my surprise this weekend when we were permitted to have truly intimate access to one of the most powerful men in the world, President George W. Bush.
Whatever you think of President Bush, this was a case to simply stand back to try to understand this man and what makes him tick. I can tell you honestly, American veterans light him up.
Two things were striking: his ability to blend in with any other Texas mountain biker – a unique little group if there ever was one – and his comfort and camaraderie with the wounded warriors. At dinner following the day’s ride, the warriors addressed the group, sharing their story and what the ride meant to them. It’s difficult to pluck one story from this group of wounded men because each is worthy of tears. There is was one veteran suffering severe PTSD who was bouncing in and out of counseling, had significant drinking and drug problems, and suicidal thoughts. Only two months ago, his closest fellow Marine, who had gotten him into counseling in the first place, killed himself. Rather than continue his spiral down, this young man was able to pull himself up, return to intense counseling, get involved in a biking charity for veterans, and concluded his address by telling President Bush that it’s been a month and a half since his last drink and the President’s sobriety has been a huge inspiration to him. President Bush bear-hugged him like a son as the rest of the room crumbled in tears.
Earlier in the day, the President showed that he was no wuss when it came to the Palo Duro Canyon, amongst a group ready to give him a run for his money. A couple members of the press who rode along struggled to keep up, while the bulk of the warriors stuck close to the President’s swift flank. Honed on stories of his athleticism for decades, the remarkable thing is how Bush blends into this group with total ease. You can see he is at home here, with what New Yorkers call “regular people,” spent from the day’s ride. Just a hundred or so salt-of-the earth bikers, their families, and a barbeque. You would’ve thought it was a community ride had you wandered by past the Secret Service. No big handlers guiding every shot – just the President and slow-cooked ribs.
As President Bush said in our interview, he doesn’t intend to lead a public life, but he wants to maintain a relationship with the veteran community. I can testify to his authenticity. Each President finds his own way in their post-POTUS years. Clearly, the man is keeping a toe in the policy world, but you can tell that the press never sang a siren song for him. Now that he’s left D.C. and doesn’t have a book to sell, he doesn’t have to talk to anyone he doesn’t want to. He’s his own damn man now, doing the things that are important to him.
Some interviews aren’t meant to be Frost/Nixon. Some are simply trying to understand a man that most people think they know, while few actually do. This is the latter and it was a true privilege to slip through the aperture for a day as we watched President Bush so at peace three years after he left office. We civilians can only imagine the emotional toll a presidency has on a man. When he left, he seemed beaten by the collapsing economy, low poll ratings, and still fighting wars on two fronts. Texas has taken 10 years off his spirit as he almost bounded between the veterans.
There’s not much we can all agree on politically these days, but as I harken back to our interview with the Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, in January, supporting our servicemen and their families should be one thing we can all agree on. It’s rewarding to see men and women from the highest levels in the Bush and Obama administrations driving this point home together.
Tune in this evening at 9 p.m. for the complete "Piers Morgan Tonight" exclusive with George W. Bush.