President Backbone

Last Thursday night Tom Brokaw carried a war report that featured an American GI who’d been shot in the leg outside Baghdad. They showed him being treated in the field on a gurney. His pants had been cut away, and you could see his shorts. They were red, white and blue. They had stars and stripes like a flag. And one of the soldiers treating him looked up and smiled. “Nice shorts,” he said.

I don’t know why the soldier with the patriotic shorts left me both moved and amused, but it did. This guy, this GI, this macho young man with his humorous, spirited statement . . .

Our young troops love their country. That is why they are where they are. It has had me thinking a happy thought, about the success with which our country, for all its troubles the past few decades, has continued to communicate to new generations the simple idea of the goodness of loving America. They have picked up the sheer exuberant joy of understanding a thing and, because one understands it and because it is good, loving it, and then acting on that love to the extent that you would fight for it, you would even die for it. This is a beautiful thing, more precious than gold.

Of the number of encouraging things that have come of this war, one of the greatest is this: that in spite of what they’ve been told and not told, and in spite of the various discouragements to America-love that have long existed in our country, our young people’s love for the nation continues. And so they stand beside her and guide her.

As have so many of their parents, and grandparents. But it seems to me quite stunning, the America love that Americans feel free to feel. They don’t think it’s jingoism or nationalism; they think it’s patriotism, and they think that’s good.

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America has always been a patriotic country, but in the past 40 years—just about exactly 40 years, since 1963 and the death of John F. Kennedy—the idea of patriotism, of loving America and feeling free to express that love, has waxed and waned. In the late 1960s a lot of young people and liberals thought you were a dope to love your country, “to wave the flag.” But that is also the precise moment that American flag lapel pins first became popular. When a local businessman wore one of them, it was as if he were wearing a sign that said “I support my country, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad.”

Twenty five years ago at CBS News a major network star said to a newsroom friend of mine, who still wore his pin, “I wish I could wear one of those.” But, he explained, it might be “misinterpreted.” My friend thought, but did not say: Yes, it would be interpreted in a way that suggested you love your country. How terrible.

The network star feared he would be considered biased in favor of America. My friend thought, as he later told me privately, that the star damn well ought to be biased in favor of it. America had given him everything he had, all his riches and fame, because America gave him the liberty to use to the utmost all the gifts he’d been born with. America guaranteed the freedoms he now and then referred to so blithely in his elegant reports. America was a more just and kind place, and an infinitely more humane one, than any of the dictatorships, communist governments or banana republics that network stars spoke of in those days with such delicate understanding and consideration.

American journalists still fear that, being called biased in favor of America. So do intellectuals, academics, local clever people who talk loudly in restaurants, and leftist mandarins of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities. For all cities have them.

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But there was always another America, and boy has it endured. It just won a war. Its newest generation is rising, and its members are impressive. They came from a bigger America and a realer one—a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality. It was full of ambition, of the desire to start here at point Z and jump there to point A, and all within one generation. It was populated by an utterly practical and yet romantic and highly spiritual people.

And it was, is, full of a kind of knowledge that reminds me of what I’ve been reading about the pope. John Paul II believes that God has written on every human heart, and what he has written prompts us to go toward the truth, to actively look for it. It makes us search until we find him; it makes us understand inside that there is good and evil; it leaves us wanting the good. “There are things you just know.” And a thing Americans just knew, and know, in spite of the great gusts of condescension from the academy and others of the professionally half-bright, is this: America is a good country, a country with high meaning and deserving of love. And they have retained that knowledge.

The war is almost over and young Americans on the ground have won it, and they are doing it like Americans of old. With their old sympathy and spirit, and a profound lack of hatred for the foe, and with compassion for the victims on the ground. Iraq, meet the grandchildren of the men who made the Marshall Plan.

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Is this corny? Too bad. It’s beautiful to see Americans stand up and embrace their patrimony and go forth into the world with faith. And none of this is unconnected to our president. George W. Bush has given our soldiers something to be proud of, something they can understand and respect. He is, now, after all he’s been through the past two years, Mr. Backbone. He has demonstrated to a seething and skeptical world that America can and will stand and fight for a cause, see it through, help the tormented and emerge victorious.

It is important who he is. George W. Bush is an American of the big and real America. He believes in it all—in the vision of the founders, in the meaning of freedom, in the founding and enduring ideas of our country. He believes in America’s historic insistence on humanity and not inhumanity in war, and he appears to have internalized the old saying that “one man with courage is a majority.”

I used to wonder if George W. Bush’s biography didn’t suggest a kind of reverse Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was born in low circumstances and rose with superior gifts. Mr. Bush was born in superior circumstances and rose with average gifts. And yet when you look at Mr. Bush now I think you have to admit—I think even clever people who talk loudly in restaurants have to admit—that he has shown himself not to be a man of average gifts. Backbone is not an average gift. Guts are not an average gift. The willingness to take pain and give pain to make progress in human life is not an average gift.

All in all these are amazing qualities in a political figure, and in a president. There’s a headline for you: America appears to have a president worthy of its people.

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I want to say something about David Bloom. When television journalists die, they’re not always captured and written of in the same way that print writers, such as the late Michael Kelly, are. Part of the reason is that print reporters hang with scribblers, who know how to write eulogies. TV broadcasters tend to hang with TV broadcasters, who are more likely to show you through pictures than tell you through words. And scribblers don’t always fully appreciate TV stars, not having experienced what they’re up against in a daily and institutional way. So I’m not sure David Bloom is going to get his written due, and I’d give a great deal to be able to say I knew him well so I could try to give it. I knew him only slightly but admired him enormously, and personally.

It wasn’t David Bloom’s job to ponder and search for justice, it was his job to tell you what is going on. That’s why he was in a specially rigged-up space-age truck bouncing along the road to Baghdad with the army of the United States. Bloom’s reports were riveting and historic. I hope that truck winds up in a museum. You could see from just watching him on TV, and I saw in the newsroom at MSNBC, as a live feed came in and people stopped talking to each other to watch the screen, that David Bloom was having the time of his life telling America what the Third Infantry Division was doing each day in the war.

He was on fire. He seemed to have no agenda but to bring you the latest. It seemed like every time you turned on the TV he was there, in the green glow of the nighttime desert hookup lights, and he’d be pointing out toward the desert and telling you that this wasn’t a road they were on, it was a long flat place where they had a lot of trucks and Humvees, one after along, which made a convoy, which was pointed at Baghdad.

The U.S. Army is almost in full control of that sad place this morning. David Bloom won’t be with the Mighty Third and reporting on the last fighting and the first greetings, and that’s a shame and a loss to us all. Some fool said yesterday that David just died of an embolism; it’s not a war death. He died of a blood clot, which is the type of thing that tends to be created or exacerbated by physical realities such as long flights or long truck rides through the desert, or tough work covering a war. David died with his boots on.

And he brought joy to the endeavor, didn’t he? He brought hunger, and energy. He made being a reporter look like the best job in the world. Rest in Peace, David of Arabia, journalist of warriors.

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The past few months I’ve been working on a book on John Paul II, and now I turn to it and some other endeavors, taking a leave from the Journal. I hope to return to the editors and readers I will miss so much, and mean to as things progress and news happens. But for now, with the war ending and, one of these days, our troops, and journalists, coming home, I turn more to the world of the pope and of the spiritual, which seems the right place to be. A special personal thank you here to my colleague James Taranto, who has long edited these pieces, and who will no doubt soon get a call saying, “James, can I file on that?”