What is it about painting and national leaders? Winston Churchill was a more than decent painter, and Dwight Eisenhower wasn't bad either – Ike's excellent portrait of his old comrade-in-arms Field Marshal Montgomery adorns the library at the British embassy residence in Washington. And then, of course, there was Hitler. But now a most improbable name must be added to the list: George W Bush.
A decade has passed since Bush launched the Iraq War, with which his name will forever be associated, and more than four years since "Dubya" left the White House, as the most polarising and reviled of US presidents since Richard Nixon. Little thereafter has been heard of him. But now the astounding revelation. In Texas retirement, the former president famous for his impatience and lack of attention to detail now finds satisfaction in the most contemplative of arts, where detail is crucial.
The first hint of Bush the painter came in a piece about the Bushes last autumn in New York magazine. Then Bush family email accounts were broken into by a hacker calling himself "Guccifer"; among the items made public were a couple of partial self-portraits, depicting the 43rd president in the bath and taking a shower. Finally, just this month, Bonnie Flood, his art teacher, went public, revealing that Bush had painted some 50 portraits of dogs, including one of Barney, his much loved and now departed Scottish terrier.
The passion has struck comparatively late in life. Hitler made an early living as a painter, while Churchill was 40 when the bug took hold. Unlike Eisenhower and Churchill, who specialised in portraits and landscapes, Bush has chosen themes that thus far have been homely, although word now is that he is branching out into landscapes as well. But even as an artist, he is as divisive as ever.
This Bush, Ms Flood told Fox News, "is going to go down in the history books as a great artist", eliciting gasps of admiration from her hosts on the conservative station. But from the left that abhorred Bush the president, there was nothing but sneers. One critic drew a predictable and Shakespearean moral from "43's" new hobby, arguing that the bath and shower scenes were metaphors for a human trying to cleanse himself of sin, a north Texan version of Lady Macbeth imploring: "Out, damn'd spot!"
Others wondered about a later-life cultural awakening, too. Could it be that this man who while in office seemed to regard most things French with a dislike otherwise reserved for radical Islam was a secret admirer of Pierre Bonnard, the French modernist painter whose subjects included a series of portraits of his wife in a bathtub? But the unmistakable subtext was one of disdain, even contempt. As Lady M conceded later in her sleepwalking scene: "What's done cannot be undone." And thus it is with the George W Bush presidency, in the eyes of his legions of detractors.
For them, he will forever be the president elected not by the voters but by a conservative-dominated Supreme Court, who blew away a budget surplus and saddled the country with its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1930s, who approved the use of torture and gave the world Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition. Above all, he was the man responsible for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguably the greatest foreign policy blunder by the US in a century.
A decade on, these critics point out, the balance sheet is grim: an Iraq liberated of a tyrant, to be sure, but still desperately unstable, and at a massive cost to America of both blood and treasure: 5,000 lives and maybe $2trn in overall cost. And that does not include the damage to his country's good name, even now only partially repaired, nor the perverse strengthening of Iran as a result of the war, nor the acceleration it provoked of Tehran's nuclear programme (or, as Bush would pronounce the word, "nu-ku-lar"). And even if you believe "Dubya" was nothing but a puppet president, invented by Karl Rove, master of the dark political arts, and whose strings were pulled in office by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, that is scant consolation.
And who knows what part was played in the Iraq debacle by the complex relationship of "43" with the father whom the son both worshipped yet sought to outdo? The younger Bush came to office vowing a return to Reaganism. If that was not an implicit repudiation of his father, the decision to order the invasion of Iraq – something George H W Bush had refused to do after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 – surely was. Americans have made abundantly clear which strategy they prefer. At 88, Bush Snr is a cherished elder statesman, a reminder of the "kinder, gentler" Republicanism he once advocated, before the party was taken hostage by the Tea Party. With each passing year, history's verdict on his presidency improves. No such redemption yet beckons for the son.
Instead, old images linger: the spoilt frat boy who won the White House by his connections, not his merit; the self-described "black sheep" of the family, with his Texas swagger and maddening smirk; the near-alcoholic turned born-again Christian teetotaller; and failed president who left office as unpopular as Nixon.
To his credit, Bush has long since come to terms with the criticism and bears it with equanimity. He lives out a comfortable retirement in a house he bought in an upmarket suburb of Dallas, where there's talk of naming an expressway after him. Apart from his painting, he plays golf as keenly as ever. (The locker at his local club is No 43.) He cuts brush at his ranch, just as he did during his frequent escapes from Washington during his White House years, and regularly attends games at the Texas Rangers, the major league baseball team of which he was once managing owner. Above all, he is delighted to be rid of political office. "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington," he has said.
His forays into public life are rare, apart from some work with his predecessor Bill Clinton on Haitian earthquake relief. Seldom, too, does he leave the US. A 2011 trip to Switzerland was called off, for fear that a zealous European magistrate might slap Bush with an arrest warrant, Pinochet-style, for human rights abuses.
That same year, he did produce a memoir, Decision Points, decently written but uninformative, and notable mainly for its complete lack of remorse. Bush had never been one to second-guess himself, and he wasn't starting now. He does the odd well-remunerated talk for friendly business audiences in which, when asked, he defends his approval of waterboarding and the like. "I'd do it again," he says, "to save lives." Meanwhile, unofficial family office beckons; with George Snr in a wheelchair and suffering from Parkinson's disease, "Dubya" is already the next Bush patriarch in waiting.
Like it or not, however, the shade of the 43rd president torments not just the Republican Party but his own family. Today, the complication is not his relationship with his father but with his younger brother, Jeb. Originally it was Jeb, not George W, who was seen by their father as political standard-bearer of the next Bush generation.
But on 8 November 1994, everything changed. That day, George Jnr, having started as underdog, was elected governor of Texas, while Jeb was unexpectedly defeated in his run for the governorship of Florida. Four years later Jeb made amends, but too late. In 2000, George, not he, was the Bush who won the White House – and the legacy of the eight years that followed has taken the party prisoner.
Today, the Republicans (and probably Jeb too, though he could never admit it) would like to airbrush George out of history, as comprehensively as Stalin did Trotsky. And Bush has done his best to help, to the point of not setting foot in Tampa for the 2012 Republican convention, at which he was seen only in a gauzy video with his father and his name went unmentioned. But that did not prevent Mitt Romney's heavy loss last November.
As the party searches for a saviour, many see Jeb, with his solid conservative credentials, impressive record as Florida governor and strong Hispanic connections, as the ideal solution. He is hinting at a run, but even 2016 may be too soon to resurrect the name of Bush. Such is the power of the painter in Dallas.
A Life In Brief
Born: George Walker Bush, 6 July 1946, New Haven, Connecticut, US.
Family: First child of George H W Bush, 41st US president, and Barbara. Married Laura in 1977; they have two daughters.
Education: Phillips Academy, Andover. Read history at Yale, then did an MBA at Harvard.
Career: In 1968, Bush was commissioned into the Texas Air National Guard. He left to become political director for an Alabama senate campaign in 1972. In 1978, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. In 1979, he set up an oil and gas company, Arbusto Energy. Bush became Governor of Texas in 1996. In 2000, he was elected US President and re-elected in 2004. Since leaving the White House in 2008 he has written his memoirs.
He says: "Do what you think is right and eventually historians will figure out whether it made sense or not."
They say: "I do not believe history will judge his administration kindly." Barack ObamaReuse content