Today, former President George W. Bush opens a public exhibit of his works – more than 24 portraits of world leaders he met while president. Painting has been the primary extra-curricular activity of his post-White House years; he paints daily, and receives a lesson once a week. Bush told his art instructor to help him “unleash his inner Rembrandt,” and these 24 paintings are the result.
A friend remarked to me that is was nice to see the former president “humanized” by this new hobby. But to me, this turn of events seems downright sad.
Certainly, there’s the tragic waste of potential. Former President Jimmy Carter travels the globe building houses for Habitat For Humanity, eradicating disease, and fighting for human rights in third world countries, for which he received the 2002 Nobel Peace prize. Former President Bill Clinton may be a spotlight-seeking fame-junky, but he’s wielded his influence to the tune of 2,800 Commitments to Action, worth $88 billion, to improve some 430 million lives around the world.
George W. Bush has spent 5 years creating an amateur pastel of Angela Merkel.
Now, unless you get sentenced to community service, no one is required to do good things for others. But being a former Leader of the Free World is a rare opportunity. Spider-Man once said that “with great power comes great responsibility.” For George W. Bush, with great power comes a ranch in Texas where you can golf, clear brush, and paint.
Perhaps it is the stark contrast to the image he presented as President that makes this new artistic pursuit so queer. George W. Bush was a cowboy. He was The Decider. The Commander-in-Chief who proudly stood in his flight suit in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner after his rousing military conquest of Baghdad, liberating the people of Iraq.
Of course, those images were always something of a ruse. Bush was not a cowboy; he was born in New Haven, Connecticut and attended Yale and Harvard. He was not a warrior; he had avoided deployments to Vietnam while his peers fought and died. He did not liberate the people of Iraq; on the contrary, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis died in the bloodshed following the American invasion of that country. Bush was a man who, whether aware of it or not, seemed to be wearing costumes that did not fit the reality of the skills and passions he actually possessed. Perhaps we should not be surprised then to see him abscond from power and turn toward other pursuits. While his old contemporary Vladimir Putin still gets to invade countries and command armies, George has slinked off to the sidelines. He is no longer an invader; he just paints them.
This image — of a man fleeing from his towering station, and turning to, of all things, art — seemed eerily familiar. And then it struck me: We’ve seen this character before, in none other than Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The book’s primary antagonist, architect Peter Keating, is a spoiled rich kid who skates though school, rising to the highest levels of society through nepotism, cronyism, and the guiding hand of a powerful parent, despite having no real talent of his own. While he is rewarded with wealth and accolades, he winds up empty inside, knowing he was forced into a profession that others chose for him, when what he really dreamed of all along was to become a painter. Late in life, after years spent causing misery and even death, Keating brings his artwork to his architectural rival, Howard Roark, desperate for his opinion:
“I haven’t shown it to anyone.” His fingers fumbled, opening the straps. “Not to mother or Ellsworth Toohey … I just want you to tell me if there’s any …”
He handed to Roark six of his canvases.
Roark looked at them, one after another. He took a longer time than he needed. When he could trust himself to lift his eyes he shook his head in silent answer to the word Keating had not pronounced.
“It’s too late, Peter,” he said gently.
Keating nodded. “Guess I … knew that.”
When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.
He had never felt this before … the complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed.
For better or worse, George W. Bush will be remembered by history. Presiding over 9/11, two wars, hundreds of thousands of dead and the near collapse of the global economy will earn you that honor. But through it all, he seemed to be more pawn than king. Not an evil man, but a man miscast by history, in a role he never fit and was eager to abandon. So it comes as only half-shock that while others go on to play large roles in world affairs after leaving the White House, Bush is showing us that he has other things to offer society, passions closer to his heart. Like painting. This, it seems, is what George W. Bush may actually have been destined for, had fate not played a cruel joke on him, and I suppose, the planet as a whole.
Bush has embraced this new opportunity. What’s done is done; he’s ready to be true to himself, to start fresh. He has put his art on display in Dallas for all to see. He wants to know: what do we think?
It’s too late, George.