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.
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