George W. Bush, you’re no Dwight Eisenhower. A hacker using the alias Guccifer yesterday posted photographs, emails, cell phone numbers and other sensitive material swiped from the accounts of the Bush family. But while the intrafamily correspondence might be of value to anyone interested in the continuing melodramas of a dynasty in exile, the most interesting part of the ill-gotten trove are three paintings apparently painted by the 43rd president himself.
George W., of course, has been famously reticent since leaving the White House. A New York magazine piece in October quoted an anonymous friend saying Bush had become increasingly agoraphobic in his retirement. He’s made few public appearances, given fewer interviews, and skipped events like last summer’s Republican convention and last month’s presidential inauguration. Other than his self-exculpatory memoir, there’s not much to go on if you’re curious about Bush’s post-presidential feelings. Until now.
What do the paintings reveal about Bush’s inner life? Some guesses.
"Man in Shower."
This painting—evidently a self-portrait—depicts the former president in a shower, his reflection visible in a shaving mirror. Though superficially an image of an everyday activity, the painting also points to an inner turmoil over one of the biggest calamities of the Bush administration: Hurricane Katrina. Consider the composition. The subject of the painting is not actually under the water. Physically, he stands back, reticent, his body still dry. In the shaving mirror, he watches from above, as if surveying the scene from an aircraft, a vaguely confused look on his face. That Bush would allude to Katrina in a painting ostensibly depicting an act of self-cleansing most likely speaks to his guilt over his handling of the storm.
"Man in Bathtub."
Again, a Bush painting where a superficial image of cleansing oneself masks an allusion to more ignominious things. A pair of legs extend forward, half submerged, as a faucet continues to fill the tub. Think about the awkwardness of the situation. Most people run a bath before getting in. As “Man in Shower” suggests, Bush himself is not one to enter the water until the time is right. So why put up with the discomfort of lying down in a half-empty tub waiting for the water to pour down? The answer is clear—subconscious remorse about waterboarding. Consider the white item above the faucet. Perhaps it is a bunched-up curtain, or a towel hanging from a rack. But there is no window on that wall, and it is doubtful that the Bush family’s bathrooms are so cramped as to require that towels be hung within the tub itself. No, that item is likely a representation of the interrogator himself, preparing to give the helpless captive a dunk in the water even as the prisoner tries to distance himself.
This painting is harder to evaluate, as it appears only in a photograph of the 43rd president painting in his weight room/art studio. On the face of it, this apparent depiction of a small country church is more fitting with Bush’s public image: After all, he famously said that Jesus changed his heart; his ranch is called prairie chapel. But the painting is all wrong. For one thing, the stone church evokes New England more than the Southwest. For another, there is a mountain in the background. Could it be that this painting is an expression of the inner divide that dominated Bush’s public life: The New England traditionalism of his actual father versus the mountainous Wyoming ruggedness of his presidential tutor, Dick Cheney. In that case, Bush himself is in the painting as the tree—planted in the churchyard, but, blown by the wind, leaning clearly towards the mountains.