Proud American

'The Finest Hours': President George H.W. Bush honors Coast Guard heroes

Former President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush and author Casey Sherman at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. (Courtesy of the author)

Former President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush and author Casey Sherman at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. (Courtesy of the author)

It’s rare that a writer is afforded the opportunity to see one of his or her novels adapted for the big screen. It’s a trillion to one shot to enjoy that very moment while sitting in a theater with a former president of the United States.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the dizzying evening spent with President George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush in Houston where they hosted a special advanced screening of Disney’s "The Finest Hours," starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck and based on my 2009 book co-authored by Michael J. Tougias.

The event at the Houston Museum of Natural Science raised money for the construction of America’s first National Coast Guard Museum to be built in New London, Connecticut. In fact, $4 million in pledges from business powerhouses like J.D Power III were announced at the gala.

I was granted a private meet and greet with President and Mrs. Bush before the screening and presented them with signed copies of my book.

Barbara Bush looked at my name on the cover and said, “I have to apologize but I don’t know your work.”

“No worries,” I replied with a laugh. “I certainly know yours.”

President Bush, sitting in a wheel chair but still ever the towering statesman, showed great interest when I told him briefly about the real life rescue he was about to watch dramatized on screen in which four young Coast Guardsmen saved 32 stranded sailors during a deadly winter storm in 1952 off Cape Cod. He took a copy of the book in his hand, studied the cover intently and smiled.

The President and Mrs. Bush were escorted into the theater, the former First Lady moving steadily with the assistance of a walker – sporting a big Jeb! bumper sticker, in support for her son,  currently struggling in his bid for the GOP nomination.

The crowd of 400 Coast Guardsmen and women and supporters such as Mr. Bush’s former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, were then treated to a pre-taped introduction to the movie from former President George W. Bush, who praised the mission of the United States Coast Guard and called upon all Americans to discover their “their finest hours.”

I had the great honor to have known the real Bernie Webber, the humble hero at the center of my book and the new Disney epic. Bernie passed in 2009 but I know he would have taken great pride at this event and the fact that the Coast Guard is finally being recognized for the work its men and women do every day.

Although not one to ever blow his own horn, Bernie was the first to say his story would make for a great film some day. “Is Don Knotts still alive?” Bernie once asked me. “If so, he could play me.”

From Barney Fife to blockbuster movie with a presidential seal of approval.

Not a bad legacy for a lifesaver.

Casey Sherman is a journalist and co-author of "The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue" and seven other books.