In my Feb. 15 column, “The artwork of George W. Bush,” I wrote about the artistic endeavors of our 43rd president. Several of his paintings were revealed to The Smoking Gun by the hacker “Gussifer.” My capsule review of the paintings: striking. I would proudly hang his self-portrait series in my home, even if I didn’t know whom they were painted by. Then, on March 5, Bonnie Flood of Cumming, Ga., was revealed to be Bush’s art teacher. She told Fox 5 Atlanta reporter Denise Dillion that Bush has a passion for painting and “will go down as one of the great artists.”
“He started off painting dogs. I think he said he painted 50 dogs,” Flood said. “He pulled out this canvas and started painting dogs and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t paint dogs!’”
I always thought there was something wispy and pastoral about Bush’s style. I just couldn’t put my finger on it before. There’s a reason for that. Incidentally, Flood has a strong Hoosier connection.
“I grew up in a small Amish town in Indiana,” reads a portion of the biography page of her professional website. “Sometimes I find myself drawn back to the barns, farm animals, and hay bales. Painting them takes me back home. The colors of the farmland in the Spring, the smell of fresh hay, all bring about the desire to paint them.”
On Thursday, Max Read, Gawker news editor, announced the website had obtained a dozen more examples of Bush’s artwork. He described them as “a mix of landscapes, still lifes, and animal portraits.”
As this story developed, I couldn’t help but also note the fact that this month represents the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Our direct military involvement in the conflict lasted eight years, eight months and three weeks. Upwards of 200,000 people lost their lives. And it cost a lot, I mean a lot, of money. In 2009, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the final price tag to be somewhere around $2 trillion. When you step back and look at it along with the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq war takes quite the financial bite.
“The day the Bush administration took over from President Bill Clinton in 2001, America enjoyed a $236 billion budget surplus — with a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion,” David Axelrod, now the former senior adviser to President Obama, wrote in The Washington Post in 2010. “When the Bush administration left office, it handed President Obama a $1.3 trillion deficit — and projected shortfalls of $8 trillion for the next decade.”
This did not help Bush’s popularity. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in the final days of the Bush administration found 34 percent of Americans approving, and 61 percent disapproving. That’s quite a drop from the Sept. 11 era, when approval spiked to around 90 percent. By the end of his term, public opinion was more dismal than even other unpopular presidents of the 20th century.
“In one sense, Bush’s final rating is worse than either Carter’s or Truman’s, because his disapproval score is significantly higher,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad. “Only Richard Nixon was explicitly less popular at the time of his exit than Bush is today.”
Jimmy Carter was another president who exited the White House under wide public derision. The America he oversaw had its own economic problems at the time. But since leaving office he has since been widely recognized as one of the greatest ex-presidents ever. He is now known as a diplomat, Nobel winner and humanitarian. Carter has only climbed in public stature in his “retirement,” if it can be called that. In a CNN-Opinion Research poll conducted in January 2009, 64 percent approved of his presidency. It wasn’t always that way for Carter. He too had only a 34 percent approval rating at the end of his presidency. Bush can relate.
I can’t remember a former president in my lifetime doing anything like Dubya is doing right now with his art. I’ll be watching closely to see where his muse takes him. At the same time, he has a lot to make up for. He could use his powers for good, though. What GWB should do is start auctioning off some of these paintings at all the famous, high-end auction houses. He should then donate this money to charities that benefit veterans. Even some of the most fervent Bush-haters would have to be a bit sympathetic. If he wants history to look upon his legacy with anywhere approaching a kind eye, there’s never been a better time than right now to take action. I don’t think it’s hopeless either. It’s been done before. He’ll never get back to the heights he once enjoyed, but he can do better. He painted himself into a corner. He has the ability to paint himself right out again.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.