On a fresh March day, snow on the ground, here comes George W. Bush as the painterly president, 14 years after he launched the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Art is now his thing, as displayed in a No. 1 best-selling new volume of about 100 warriors wounded on his watch, “Portraits of Courage” (Crown).
As a fierce critic of Bush’s conduct as president, I’m amazed at the sensibility of the artist at work in this breathtaking collection. The Texan former president took up painting seriously since leaving office. He seems to see into his subjects, past their injuries, with real insight and compassion. The accompanying text gives stories of their struggles — representing all the armed services. He worked from photographs.
The gallery exhibit (at Bush’s presidential center) can be seen as an elaborate thank-you note. It’s a WASP thing. His father, the 41st president, famously dashed them off. The secret of his success.
Has Bush at last found himself in a field that requires no family name or fame, no credentials, clubs or wealth? He’s only 70, the same age as the current president, Donald J. Trump.
In the face of Trump’s reign of accusations, boasts and threats to close up shop at the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency, there’s been a softening of opinion on the second Bush president.
You see, he was rough-hewn, but Bush belonged to the political establishment as a genial governor when he ran. Trump is such an angry outsider that you can sense Washington wishing for the good ol’ days. Back then, presidents didn’t accuse others in the elite club of wiretapping.
Let’s not make that mistake. We should not elevate Bush from the basement of the presidential pantheon. History is only useful if it’s unvarnished.
During eight years in office, Bush played the commander in chief with bluff and bravado, landing on an aircraft carrier and declaring false victory. He never dwelled on regret for wars he started in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are the longest wars in American history and by some military accounts, still unfinished. Those countries are now in a state of shambles and anarchy, and the United States is scarred by our own senseless 21st-century wars.
What were they for again?
One reason Trump became a leading presidential candidate is because he was the only outspoken critic of Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The public knew that was sad but true. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War in the Senate, which came back to haunt her.
In Bush’s best-selling book, we see men, and a few women, their close-up countenances captured by an oil brush. These people paid the price for Bush’s war swagger, many losing limbs, some suffering post-traumatic stress, others with cracked skulls. Some spent months or years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Then there are those — almost 7,000 — the war dead who gave their lives serving in the all-volunteer military. It’s much easier for a leader to go to war without a draft to alarm the citizenry. The Pentagon figured that out after the lost Vietnam War.
Bush’s White House misled Congress and the United Nations on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice warned about a smoking gun becoming “a mushroom cloud.”
The brash secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, insulted our own soldiers by saying, “You go to war with the Army you have.” Secretary of State Colin Powell got bamboozled, making a speech to the U.N. that swayed the pundits who joined in the Greek chorus for war.
Most critical: The Sept. 11th terrorist attacks were used by the president and his men, from the first, champing for a reason to attack Saddam Hussein. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, which was carried out mostly by Saudi Arabian men. Bush was warned at his ranch in August that the CIA knew something like this was brewing but it did not penetrate.
Baghdad’s biblical antiquities got looted in plain sight because Rumsfeld had no plan for saving civil society.
If only someone had urged young promising George one summer in Maine: “Stick to painting from now on.”