Sgt. First Class Michael R. Rodriguez, U.S. Army.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH
By JONATHAN ALTER
APRIL 17, 2017
PORTRAITS OF COURAGE
A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors
By George W. Bush
Illustrated. 191 pp. Crown Publishers. $35.
As a cub reporter in 1967, Richard Cohen (now a political columnist for The Washington Post) covered an exhibition of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s paintings and asked the former president about their symbolism.
“Let’s get something straight here, Cohen,” Ike snapped. “They would have burned this [expletive] a long time ago if I weren’t the president of the United States.”
The same might have been said of former President George W. Bush’s paintings of his pets — and his embarrassing if psychologically compelling self-portraits in the bathroom — that were hacked in 2013 from family emails by “Guccifer,” a Romanian hacker. This was a first. Who leaks paintings?
Their value lay only in their presidential provenance. In the Amazon TV series “Alpha House” (disclosure: I was a producer), Garry Trudeau makes sport of a fictional Republican senator carefully hanging his treasured bathtub-feet “Bush” as if it were a masterpiece. This while former President Jimmy Carter was selling one of his paintings at a Carter Center charity auction for $750,000.
In the introduction to his new coffee-table book of oil paintings, Bush readily — perhaps pre-emptively — admits that he’s a “novice.” Three years after leaving the White House, he set out to adopt the pastime of Winston Churchill, who painted to relieve the “Black Dog” of depression. But age 66 is awfully late to achieve proficiency, especially for a man with a famously short attention span. Bush recalls playfully informing his first art instructor, Gail Norfleet, of his objectives. “Gail, there’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body,” he told her. “Your job is to liberate him.”
Norfleet and Bush’s other talented tutors fell short of that ideal, but they did liberate an inner Bush we — and maybe he — never knew existed: An evocative and surprisingly adept artist who has dramatically improved his technique while also doing penance for one of the greatest disasters in American history.
After staring at the haunting close-up portraits of wounded warriors and reading the searing accounts of their suffering, I’m beginning to understand why this beautifully published book went to No. 1 on The Times’s nonfiction best-seller list. It’s not that people are suddenly nostalgic for Bush; historians consistently rank him near the bottom in their lists of American presidents and — despite lasting achievements on treating AIDS globally and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare — he will very likely remain there, even if he rises past President Trump some day. (Trump hasn’t gotten us into a $1 trillion war or presided over an economic meltdown — so far.) And it’s not just that Trump has set the bar of character and decency so low that Bush barely needs to lift his cowboy boot to step over it. His charming family, warm relationship with the Obamas, and welcome defense of the press and other threatened democratic institutions aren’t sufficient explanations, either.
Lt. Col. Kent Graham Solheim, U.S. Army.(see article)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH
A better answer might lie in the words of Marine Corps Sgt. Andy Hatcher, who enlisted a month before 9/11 and was ambushed on Thanksgiving Day 2004 in the Second Battle of Falluja. Hatcher lost his right foot and most of the hearing in his right ear. He also suffered traumatic brain injury, though a less severe form of that signature wound of the Iraq War than afflicted other veterans. “My father is a Vietnam vet,” Hatcher said. “He was treated incredibly differently than I was.”
The success of “Portraits of Courage” (with the proceeds to help vets) is something more than just another “Thank you for your service.” It testifies to our genuine, bipartisan determination to do it better this time — to support healing in all of its forms, even from the president who most made that healing necessary. It reflects our fascination with how leaders process pain and regret. And whether or not we backed Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (as I wrongly did), commemorating the more than 40,000 brave Americans who left a piece of themselves behind in Iraq and Afghanistan seems a fitting if tiny step toward bridging the civilian-military divide. Bush writes of the veterans he met that “looking them in the eye and saluting them as their commander in chief” was the greatest honor of his presidency and that he will continue to actively honor them for the rest of his life. This was not something that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did much of with Vietnam veterans after leaving office.
Presidents who send soldiers into battle cannot easily confess that it was in vain. In his memoir “Decision Points,” Bush concedes that American forces were withdrawn too quickly but not that responding to 9/11 by attacking a dictator who had nothing to do with it was a colossal error. He can’t admit that he has little to show for his dream of democratizing the Middle East, beyond continuing chaos.
Sgt. Leslie Zimmerman, U.S. Army.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH
And yet, bearing unflinching witness to the horrific consequences of historic folly should always be welcome. Atonement is not accountability, much less redemption, but it’s a start. Bush mostly avoids Veterans Day-style platitudes and sugarcoats nothing, not even stories about a veteran who wounded a fellow soldier with friendly fire and one shot by an Afghan security guard who was supposed to be an ally.
The former president met the 96 men and two women he painted in military hospitals and at the Warrior 100K mountain bike rides and Warrior Open golf outings sponsored by the Bush Institute. Their inspiring stories of recovery — most would not have survived in earlier wars — cannot soften the horrors they endured. Bush’s colorful brush strokes (he painted from photographs) capture the faces of soldiers like Army Capt. Jae Barclay, who underwent 30 surgeries after his vehicle struck an I.E.D. in Afghanistan; Lt. Col. Kent Solheim, whose right leg was amputated amid 34 surgeries, after which he returned for two more deployments; and Master Sgt. Israel del Toro Jr., “DT,” whom Bush first met when he was in a medically induced coma after his Humvee was hit by a bomb that severed his fingers and nose and severely burned 80 percent of his body. He was given little chance of survival, and when he beat those odds, doctors told him he would never walk or breathe on his own. After more than 100 surgeries, DT represented the United States in cycling and powerlifting at the 2016 Invictus Games and won the gold medal in the shot put.
The wounded warriors who don’t like Bush and haven’t recovered well were unlikely to have become friendly enough with him to have their portraits painted. But most of his subjects suffered nightmares, depression and “PTS.” (He leaves “disorder” off the end of post-traumatic stress, presumably because the clinical distinction between PTS and PTSD can be fuzzy.) The stories are gruesome but also occasionally amusing. Lt. Col. Ken Dwyer told Bush and the golf legend Lee Trevino how he took his prosthetic eye out of its socket and presented it to an umpire at his son’s baseball game with the comment: “Here, you seem to need this a lot more than I do.”
The only weak part of this book is the ingratiating foreword by Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “President Bush asked tough questions — and continued to ask them until he had all the information he needed,” Pace writes. This is precisely what Bush did not do — on incomplete plans for the postwar occupation, insufficient American troop levels, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army (one of the factors that led to ISIS) and many other matters. “Once he made a decision, he would resource it properly,” Pace claims. Tell that to the men who were killed or wounded because of unconscionable delays in obtaining proper body armor. Pace is right about one thing: The book is a “message of love” from a former president to the troops.
In 2003, I argued that Iraq was the right war with the wrong commander in chief. I had it nearly backward. It was the wrong war — for which history will forever blame Bush — but with the right commander in chief, at least for the noble if narrow purpose of creatively honoring veterans through art. Contra Ike, these portraits — an unexpected asterisk to the Bush legacy — would not have been burned, even if the artist had never been president.
Jonathan Alter, a former columnist for Newsweek who has written books on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama, is working on a biography of Jimmy Carter.