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This became clear on Thursday night when the former president stopped by Jimmy Kimmel Live! to promote his new book of paintings, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.
Yes, in his post-presidential “afterlife,” Bush has embraced his inner Rembrandt. He now spends a considerable amount of time in a studio. He looks far more sanguine than when he was in office. He exudes a stately presence and whimsical calm, qualities that are enhanced by the sad reality they are not shared by the current president. Trump is the best thing that ever happened to Bush.
The former president ribbed Kimmel about the recent Oscars mix-up: “Pass the envelope, please.” He laughed uproariously when Kimmel asked if he was jealous of the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. He shared anecdotes that were at once sweet and odd, including the time he went on a date with Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia and picked her up in a purple Gremlin.
A number of Bush’s paintings were flashed on monitors, including two self-portraits in the bathtub and shower. He joked about exaggerating his muscles. These paintings, as with the portraits of veterans in his new book, showcase an artist with a keen sense of light and perspective and, holy hell, are we really talking about George W. Bush?
It’s bonkers. In 2008, when Bush was nearing the end of his second term, the only way his approval rating could have plunged further is if he had burned the flag on the South Lawn while imposing a ban on Bud Light and gifting the Rockettes to Kim Jong Il. Dogged by wars he unwisely started and a financial meltdown he didn’t see coming, Bush was a lock to win any future Worst President Ever contest.
But here we are in the maelstrom of 2017 and Trump’s reign of chaos is making us nostalgic for the kinder, gentler days of Bush. In less than a decade, he’s gone from bête noire to champion of democratic ideals.
If Trump is a separating agent, Bush is now a cultural glue.
“The nation needs a free and independent press,” he told Ellen DeGeneres on Thursday, a repudiation of Trump’s “enemy of the people” garbage. “And the reason why is that power can be very corrupting. And we need a press corps to hold politicians to account, including me. . . . Power doesn’t make you immune to criticism or to corruption investigations.”
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Wow. Remember, this is coming from a man who in the first eight years of this century got more bad press than Kanye West and Justin Bieber combined. Bush was so despised around the world, he once had to duck a flying shoe at a press conference. But now, by virtue of who he is not — Donald Trump — Bush has literally painted over the old caricature of doofus-in-chief and emerged as a touchstone of grace and civility. His legacy is open to new interpretation.
Aziz Ansari joked about this strange metamorphosis earlier this year when he hosted Saturday Night Live and confessed to “wistfully watching old Bush speeches” and marvelling at the eloquence.
Or as Joy Behar recently observed on The View: “I like George Bush now.”
Everyone seems to like George Bush now. He was on TV this past week more than Trump, which is saying something. He’s the subject of glowing magazine profiles. His ongoing friendship with Michelle Obama has become a fascination as pop culture does a 180 and celebrates Bush in a way it never did when he was president. Even quirks that were once used by his critics as a cudgel, including his routine mangling of the language, have been repackaged as fond memories.
“I had dinner with Lorne Michaels, the head of Saturday Night Live, and he said, ‘I put a great speech writer on you and he came up with strategery.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, I said strategery.’ And he said, ‘No, you didn’t say strategery.’ I said, ‘I damn sure said strategery!’ He said, ‘We invented it.’ I said, ‘Well, let me ask you this: Did (the speech writer) come up with misunderestimate?’”
This is Bush today: funny, gracious, coolly detached and self-deprecating, everything Trump is not. In a time of political darkness, Bush has become a beacon of light, an unlikely reminder of saner times. The more Trump dwells in the sewers of division, the higher Bush rises in our esteem.
It’s symbiotic, to use one of Bush’s new favourite words. Or to use one of his old standbys: never misunderestimate the power of looking good when everything around you is downright ugly.