Former presidents have a tough time transitioning back to the world after they leave office. You might, too, if you're no longer the leader of the free world. Many past presidents have committed themselves to heading large eponymous foundations, where they can continue to have an impact on issue areas of their choosing. Other presidents like to continue their involvement in world affairs, often acting like celebrity ambassadors for the Department of State. Still other presidents fade from public view entirely, either out of infamy or advanced age. Then you have former President George W. Bush, who has done none of these things.
President Bush cannot pursue an active public life — the GOP would rather him to stay out of the limelight for fear of reminding the public of an ultimately unpopular presidency. But this doesn't mean that President Bush can fade from public scrutiny altogether. His still-recent infamy in office, along with the release of his memoirs, compound to keep relevant the public persona of our 43rd President. So it seems Mr. Bush is leading the least harmful existence he can. By painting.
Painting is a marked departure from President Bush's well-known past time of clearing brush. And like President Clinton, President Bush seems to have picked up a creative hobby, one rife with interpretive potential. Now that we have several paintings from the former president, it is worth asking: What is George W. Bush trying to tell us?
Dogs stand obediently in what appears to be most of President Bush's artwork. By his instructor's account, he has painted over 50 dogs. While the motif of man's best friend runs deep through his paintings, each and every single canine tends to have a vacant expression. This may be because the former leader of the free world hasn't yet mastered the art of capturing expressions ... or it may be something more.
Part and parcel of the man's-best-friend cliché is the abiding faith in our dogs as loyal pets. Likewise, a distinguishing feature of the Bush Administration is its preference for loyalty over competency. This is seen broadly in the "Texas Gang" of personal friends and aides that accompanied President Bush to the White House and specifically in some telling public moments, such as when the President nominated his (appallingly unqualified) personal lawyer to the Supreme Court.
But like the vacant canine expressions, an over-reliance on internal loyalty seems to have left the former president empty in the wake of his administration. Seeking distance from the specter of the last Republican presidency, the GOP has all but exiled Bush to Texas. Many of his close circle have moved on in their professional lives — some openly parting with Bush by endorsing President Obama, others perhaps charting their own presidential bids, and still others tearing into fellow Bush loyals. Without a seat of power to elicit loyal subjects, President Bush seems to be channeling his artistic imagination into creating oil-based representations of loyalty. In so doing he seems to live the truth of a famous Picasso reflection: "Art is a lie that tells the truth."