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Thinking about George W. Bush — or not thinking about George W. Bush — eight years after

The evening before election day, Ava and I walked down to the estuary, sat on a pier, and watched the fishing boats come in. The sky was cloud-studded but dry, the weather shirt-sleeve warm. The light resembled a luminist painting.

The morning of election day, we walked down and watched the boats go out again under the same low, dry, radiant sky, while sharing a buttery croissant from the local tea shop.

I thought, not for the first or last time, “It doesn’t matter whose butt gets planted in the Oval Office. This doesn’t change. This is my place and my life and it’s a blessing to be here.”

Of course, it does matter. When I read last night that Trump might be considering the horrific John Bolton for Secretary of State, my gut clenched. With the world already on edge, we don’t need one of the nation’s most blood-craving neocons anywhere near the center of power, let alone in the top diplomat position. We can ignore a lot of things the fedgov does, but WWIII isn’t one of them.

Still, this morning and many other mornings, Ava and I will take long walks along the water. Our lives will belong to us again, not to any of the power-hungry, incompetent creeps who imagine they run the world.


Oddly, both Bolton and the reality of a self-owned life got me thinking about George W. Bush.

He was a catastrophic president, it hardly needs saying. Whether he was merely the dumbass pawn of Dick Cheney that many suspected or the delusional religionist who truly believed God wanted him to bomb the Middle East back into the stone age (from which it had barely emerged) or just some hapless loser attempting to live up to an impossible dynastic imperative … he gave us eight ruinous years. He left us broke, unemployed, subject to a corrupt banking system, under the thumb of an ever-consuming government, with an incalculable national debt, and dragged into more wars than most of us can count. He gave us Bolton as UN ambassador. Ugh.

But the thing is, no matter what Bush left us with … he left us.

Unlike the Clintons, unlike the post-regime Obama-to-be, unlike most modern presidents, when he went away, he went the freak away. He didn’t become a lobbyist. He didn’t make bazillions as a wink-wink-nod-nod public speaker. He didn’t, as far as I know, consume himself with the effort to build one of those obnoxious Monuments of Empire, a presidential library. He didn’t fixate on his Capital-L Legacy.

He just went off and lived. And painted pictures.

I love that. The man who held — however mistakenly — the reins of the world’s only superpower, went quietly away and painted dogs. And portraits. And the occasional landscape.

He’s as terrible a painter as he was a president. His paintings, were they done by a little old lady at the local senior center, would not be noticed at all. Or they’d be sneered at by the kind of people who view themselves as experts on art. Bush’s pictures are, at best, naive (which I mean in the art-world sense of being charmingly primitive, unskilled yet attractive). Only because their painter is an ex-president, the works have been praised, featured in galleries, and even published in a book (upcoming in early 2017).

But I suspect Bush doesn’t care a lot about the praise. Because clearly, he’s doing those paintings out of love. He’s spending his days painting because, after all that time in the public eye, all that time being handled by handlers, all that time being cursed or praised, all that time being responsible, he’s finally living his life as he wants to live it.

Presidents used to retire to private life after their job was done. Calvin Coolidge retreated to the same duplex he lived in before dubious power overcame him. Eisenhower kept on playing golf. But the modern thing is to remain in the public eye, getting richer and more influential and laboring away at ensuring that utterly ridiculous legacy. Only Jimmy Carter refrained; but even he (a genuinely good man, even if another godawful president) remained a do-gooder, building Habitat for Humanity houses and sticking his nose in here and there to give governmental and NGO advice.

But George W. Bush, for all his public failings, chose to live a private life fulfilling a private dream. Gotta admire that. It’s even more admirable, in a way, that he chose to pursue art despite having no particular talent.

I actually have more training in art than in writing. I became a writer late one night, and only by accident. But the part of my life that ought to be filled by art is empty and unsatisfying because I’m too self conscious about not being good enough. So I look at W and admire him. Not for how well he does it. But that he does it — and keeps on doing it — despite not doing it well.

It says something positive about a life otherwise misspent and about the person who misspent it.

Now even an ex-president can shut out all the presidential noise and have a blissfully creative private life.

And if he can after having to live up to being a member of the Bush dynasty all his life, so can we all when we find the right moment and choose the right way.


You know the drill: this month only, please enter Amazon via these ads (one is below). BIG help to me! BTW, of the eight items below, I own and can highly recommend three: the pet portrait book is fantastic for anybody aiming for realism with colored pencil; “The Artist’s Way” is simply the most important book ever written for blocked creatives; and the Prismacolor pencil set is a bargain one one of the top brands available (though I admit I personally prefer the pricier oil-based Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils).


  1. E. Garrett Perry
    E. Garrett Perry November 15, 2016 12:06 pm

    I have always felt vaguely sorry for The Shrub.

    I developed, many years ago, a theory regarding a personality type which I christened “The Weak King.” Perhaps, rather than a theory, a method of identification and analysis. Weak Kings are perhaps the most politically/economically/socially dangerous type, but they are frequently quite likeable people. The very characteristics which make a good man are the same ones which make a terrible, or at least ineffectual, ruler.

    Weak Kings are almost always of middle or low birth-order. In olden days, and among the “old money” today, these are the sons who went into the military, or the clergy, or even (*shudder*) academia. It gave them not only purpose, but an identity somewhat removed from the pressures placed upon the eldest child. Then, usually sometime between late childhood and young adulthood, something changes. The eldest child dies, or goes mad, or turns out to be infertile, in any case becomes unable to rule: suddenly the younger brother is plucked from the monastary or the army and fitted for a crown he is untrained, unprepared, sometimes downright unwilling to wear. He has to start learning how to be King from Square One, while the rest of his generation– his future counselors, enemies, and underlings– have a fifteen-year head start.

    Weak Kings like to tinker, and are frequently very bookish. They tend to be detail-oriented, sometimes to the point of tunnel-vision, and whether this causes or is caused by their fidgiteness I will not speculate. Louis16 liked to make locks and repair clocks; Nicholas2 enjoyed tinkering with guns (and locks); Stephen Of England was much remarked-upon because he was not only literate but known to read for pleasure; Kaiser Wilhelm was a fussy technocrat who liked reading about steam engines; poor old King George5 collected stamps. As you mention, GWB was known as an inveterate gardener, and his taking up of painting certainly fits the pattern. This sometimes nigh-obsessive focus results in their being easily distracted from matters of State, and easily bypassed while their attention is taken up by their hobby.

    Weak Kings, after a time, tend to become paranoid– but this paranoia usually appends only to people outside of their immediate circle. Those whom they allow to get -that- close are often regarded as infallible, or even impeccable, and are in superb position to lean the monarch around by the nose: witness Stephen Of England’s constant troubles caused by not-to-be-trusted cousins and hangers-on, or Tsar Nicki’s endless difficulties with Alexandra’s stream of “Holy Men”; ending of course with Rasputin. Outside of this circle, however, they are prone to lashing out unpredictably, or to allowing their subordinates to lash out for them. They are also easily convinced of conspiracies or incompetencies acting against them, and easily become tools of political repression and personal vendetta.

    But these are the qualities of normal, everyday people: qualities which become dysfunctions in a position of power. The personal lives of Weak Kings are those of overwhelmed, slightly off-kilter family men who would rather have been locksmiths or farmers with a happy wife and a houseful of kids. They are recorded as doting fathers, loving husbands, shrewd and involved businessmen, and as being deeply affected by the sufferings of those whom they are unwillingly brought to rule. That they so amplify those sufferings usually escapes them entirely.

    Writing about Stephen of England shortly after his death, the normally-sympathetic “Gesta Stepani” records him as “…a kindly man, gentle and good, who did no Justice.”

    I always saw a lot of Stephen in GWB. And like Stephen, his weakness and unpreparedness to rule plunged his reign into infamy.

  2. Claire
    Claire November 15, 2016 12:31 pm

    E. Garrett Perry — I wish we had some means for upvoting comments here. Many times I’ve wanted to award a star or a thumbs-up to a particularly good (often well-researched and informative) comment. Yours is definitely one of those.

    I knew GWB labored under the stigma of being a younger, weaker son (ne’er-do-well alcoholic goof-off), but I never thought of his rise in those historic terms.

  3. E. Garrett Perry
    E. Garrett Perry November 15, 2016 12:58 pm

    Thank you very kindly, Claire- yours are words I cherish. 🙂

  4. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty November 15, 2016 1:14 pm

    Terrific insights, Mr. Perry! Thank you.

  5. SteveFromMA
    SteveFromMA November 15, 2016 2:17 pm

    Very interesting. We will never know whether Bush two is evil, stupid, or deluded. The problem is his legacy of wholesale ruin remains and I can’t forgive him. The only time you don’t have personal responsibility is if you are responding to voices and are psychotic.

  6. He Who Fakes It Well
    He Who Fakes It Well November 15, 2016 2:42 pm

    Claire: ” I wish we had some means for upvoting comments here. Many times I’ve wanted to award a star or a thumb’s up to a particularly good (often well-researched and informative) comment.”

    I can do that.

  7. Claire
    Claire November 15, 2016 2:50 pm

    HWFIW — Oh good! Now let me make a post asking whether people want that feature, just in case everybody else thinks I’m wrong. Will do that and get back to you. Thanks!

  8. Claire
    Claire November 15, 2016 2:51 pm

    BTW, I’m thinking of one that allows upvotes but has no “smites” or downvotes. Is that possible?

  9. SteveFromMA
    SteveFromMA November 15, 2016 4:04 pm

    I never thought of it before but having only positive votes is, philosophically, maybe, an interesting question. You don’t want nastiness but humans are born to make judgements.

    But it’s your blog and you can do whatever seems right you!😀

  10. Claire
    Claire November 15, 2016 5:51 pm

    Well, SteveFromMA, it may be my blog, but upvoting is definitely a team sport. 🙂 So I’ve prepped a post for tonight asking readers’ preferences on having a “like” button.

    Turns out, if I understand correction, that a “like” is what’s easily available on our existing software. No downvoting. So that takes care of that question.

  11. Desertrat
    Desertrat November 15, 2016 8:55 pm

    Dubya was a pretty good governor, but as President his foreign policy was a bummer.

    But I saw him as overly-influenced by his daddy. Daddy was a life-long government employee, and Dubya grew up in LBJ’s unGreat Society. So, a Statist and not really all that conservative. “Free Pills for Olde Pharts” was an Algore idea. “No child left behind” was idiotic.

    People talk negatively about his tax cuts, but income of the federal government rose during his tenure. Doesn’t excuse deficits, but tax cuts always promote business activity, leading to more wealth on which to levy taxes. (Which has nothing to do with one’s view of taxation as evil.)

    I always saw him as a good old boy people person. Sit down and drink a beer. Polite disagreement isn’t upsetting.

    When he owned the baseball team, he knew every stadium employee by face and name. When the raghead murdered the kids at Fort Hood, he took off from the ranch sans Secret Service and drove straight to the Fort Hood hospital. Obama showed up two weeks later, nattered about workplace violence and never went to the hospital. And the Secret Service guys have lauded him and his bosslady.

    Personally, I think that as to foreign affairs, the Peter Principle hit him big time, and he got tons of bad advice. And he didn’t realize how bad his monetary ideas would clobber us. Stimulus and TARP as forerunners to QE and ZIRP are still clobbering us.

    But he signed our CHL law. 🙂

  12. SteveFromMA
    SteveFromMA November 15, 2016 9:30 pm

    He probably killed 100,000 people with Shock and Awe and that was only the beginning.

    He should have been dragged to the Hague and been tried for mass war crimes with his henchmen.

  13. Desertrat
    Desertrat November 16, 2016 5:42 am

    War crimes? It’s peeing in the whiskey to gripe about history. US government against the AmerInd or Sherman’s “march to the sea”. Moros on Mindanao. WW II bombings. Clinton’s bombing in Serbia. Dubya. Obama’s drone-delivered wedding presents.

    Just be thankful that Hillary lost.

  14. StevefromMA
    StevefromMA November 16, 2016 8:47 am

    Wow, forgive and forget, guess you didn’t lose anyone to the Holocaust, the Jewish one or any of the previous and post ones.

    There’s probably room for a lot of cells and nooses at The Hague. Unpunished psychopathic behavior always convinces future psychopaths there are no consequences for them. Let bygones be bygones doesn’t work for murdered family members and dead folks are always somebody’s family.

  15. SteveFromMA
    SteveFromMA November 16, 2016 10:38 am

    Maybe not exactly but shrub is still recent history and still alive for prosecution. I keep even hoping for Kissinger to be dragged off somewhere but some people are so smooth and lucky they evade consequences until the Reaper gets them. The punishment for U.S. war crimes appears to be the Nobel Peace Prize. I have hopes the U.S. will be sued to !&@ civilly with that new law though they’ll probably revoke it. Kind of appropriately ironic that in our crony capitalist system the only penalties for bad crap done by bad people in our name with our money are financial.

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner

  16. Claire
    Claire November 16, 2016 11:28 am

    “The punishment for U.S. war crimes appears to be the Nobel Peace Prize.”

    Too true. Either that or at least wealth, honors, and acclaim (which even the odious Nixon got in the end).

    I semi-agree with Desertrat in that it becomes unproductive to dwell on every injustice of the distant past. But when the perpetrators of murder, thievery, war crimes, and other evil deeds are still alive, they should absolutely be held accountable — for instance, straight down from the commander in chief to the helicopter pilots in the Collateral Murder video.

  17. Comrade X
    Comrade X November 16, 2016 11:56 am

    If all those in government got their just rewards here on earth, the guillotine man sure would be the busiest of all our government employees methinks, but wasn’t that tried once before and didn’t that not work out so well then either?

    We would be so lucky if only Obama emulated W and disappear after January too.

  18. E. Garrett Perry
    E. Garrett Perry November 16, 2016 10:44 pm

    In reading back over my comment above, I realised that I had forgotten one essential characteristic of the Weak King which makes him the most dangerous and destructive of rulers: a toxic and all-consuming need to prove himself and dominate his peers. The Weak King, having been thrown late into his education and perhaps even into the business of Kingship itself, is constantly seeking opportunities to prove himself. He picks fights best left unpicked, spends profligately in attempts to outdo his neighbors, and generally thrashes about the world with a continental-sized case of Middle Child Syndrome. Lacking the education to discern a situation best dealt with otherwise, he charges into everything full-tilt but with little understanding. Barring an early victory through luck and audacity, he is either defeated in detail by a more clever enemy, or simply out-waited by a sufficiently patient one. The Weak King, above almost all else, is prickly and easily provoked- particularly when he is held or feels himself to be held in comparison to other members of his own dynasty or social class. Above all, the Weak King can be most easily goaded by comparison to the absent (more suitable) Elder Brother- Henry8 was lethally touchy about the elder brother whose wife he married, Tsar Nicholas quietly detested his brutal fraternal predecessor, and GWB was infamously sensitive to comparisons with Jeb. Kaiser Bill spent his entire life trying to hide an atrophied arm, and even among his royal cousins was known for peevishness and a sullen, quick temper.

    In a boxer these tendencies are a problem. In a politician, they are a disaster.

  19. Deana
    Deana November 21, 2016 10:22 pm

    My hope is that the Obamas follow W.’s example and disappear. Our nation has been blessed for so long to have presidents who did just that. They recognized that their time had passed. They had had their say.

    My guess though is that Obama will not follow this long tradition.

  20. regt2000
    regt2000 November 22, 2016 1:22 am

    Carter a “genuinely good man”? Claire, please – an open anti-Semite who hates Israel and has worked with the so-called “Palestinians” (the original Palestine was Jewish, btw) to harass and harangue Israel in support of Arafat (and other terrorists and slimy creatures) who worked to bring about the downfall of Israel and the removal of Israelis and Jews throughout the world? Are we talking about the same man? Not only the (now) second worst President in American history, but a man who couldn’t see past his own bias against Israel to work towards real peace (not that the Arab/muslim people living there actually want peace) between the two groups?

    As the saying goes, take away the muslim weapons and there would be no war. Take away the Israeli weapons and there would be no Israel. Or any Jews in the Middle East. Anyone who watched Carter simper in front of Arafat and condemn Israel would know which side of that argument Old Jimmy stood on. And, as a man who detested Jews, I have to wonder how many Habitats for Humanity he helped build for blacks, as well. The folks in the South of his and his parents generations who detested blacks were usually the same ones who detested Jews.

  21. Claire
    Claire November 22, 2016 7:30 am

    regt — I never said I agreed with Carter’s opinions or his policies. On the contrary.

    But Carter, unlike members of a certain other presidential family whose name begins with “C,” has spent his retirement trying to live as a moral being, not a corrupt political one. Do I like everything he’s chosen to do or everything he values? Hell no!

    I’m glad you brought all that out about him, in any case. It needs remembering.

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