George W. Bush is painting portraits of soldiers, and they're pretty amazing.
"In his book, 'Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors'" Peter Schjeldahl writes, "President Bush has painted ninety-eight portraits of "physically and/or mentally wounded Armed Forces veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars" (via).
The quality of the art is astonishingly high for someone who—because he “felt antsy” in retirement, he writes, after “I had been an art-agnostic all my life”—took up painting from a standing stop, four years ago, at the age of sixty-six. Bush’s eye and hand have improved drastically since hacked images of a couple of clumsy, apparently nude self-portraits in a bathroom surfaced, in 2013. (He made those, he said, to shock his painting tutor—the first of three plainly crackerjack ones whom he acknowledges in the book.)
Bush now commands a style, generic but efficient, of thick, summary brushwork that aims to capture expression as well as physiognomy. There’s a remoteness in the use of photographs. The subjects aren’t present to the artist. They’re elsewhere. But they look honestly observed and persuasively alive.
I love this acknowledgement because it highlights the closeness, the intimate connection, President Bush has with these men and women - even if they're not physically present. He isn't painting their portraits as a publicity stunt or to merely "be liked" by a country that criticized him so often. He's doing it because his heart and mind are wrestling through the immense responsibility of being a President, of sending people he didn't know into war, while he stays behind.
A responsibility and weight we'll will never understand.
President Bush sent these men and women into harm’s way, and they came back harmed—often minus limbs from I.E.D. and mine explosions—and, in all cases, traumatized to some degree. Ex-President Bush met them in the course of running a charity, the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which he set up to honor and aid veterans.
Bush’s portraits are accompanied in the book by upbeat tales of recovery . . . the book’s tone isn’t self-congratulatory. It’s self-comforting, rather, in its exercise of Bush’s never-doubted sincerity and humility—virtues that were maddeningly futile when he governed, and that now shine brighter, in contrast with Trump, than may be merited.
Having obliviously made murderous errors, Bush now obliviously atones for them. What do you do with someone like that? (via)
I love that concluding question, and I love that a New Yorker journalist asked it because a journalist of such caliber is supposed to answer questions, relieve doubt and confusion, and articulate a way we should and want to think.
But he doesn't. Which makes it a perfect ending. Because it leaves it up to us - we are responsible for figuring it out - for concluding his thoughts.
What do you do with someone like that?
Well, we Forgive, empathize, and allow him to live outside of our constructed single story. We allow him to be a human who lived out his humanity on the grandest of stages, for everyone to see. And we allow him, and learn from, his attempts to seek amends. Because that's what heroes do.
And, if Michelle Obama can take to the former president, despite their vast differences, I think we all can.