Former President George W. Bush has taken up painting. Jay Leno, in the final stretch of his long and illustrious career as host of NBC’s Tonight Show, invited the former president to be a guest on the show last November. Bush agreed, and his wife, Laura, joined him.
Notably, Bush has remained away from the spotlight through five years (and counting) of his post-presidency. Quite admirably, when Leno asked him why he hasn’t chimed in on politics, Bush replied: “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president criticize his successor.” But Bush has no qualms about sharing a story that reveals an insatiable inferiority complex and a need to measure up to the United States, by a contemporary of his – then and current Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The conversation switched to Bush’s newfound painting passion, and the highlight of the interview was when Bush revealed a portrait of Leno that he painted. The more newsworthy painting, however, was that of his Bush’s Scottish Terrier, Barney, because of what it revealed.
Bush recalled when he was still president that Putin was visiting the United States, and Bush introduced Putin to Barney. “He kind of dissed him,” Bush said. “He looked at him as if to say ‘you call that a dog?’” A year later, Bush told Leno, he was in Russia and Putin introduced him to his own dog, a hound much larger than Barney, and Putin said: “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney.”
In an interview last week with his daughter, Jenna Bush Hager of the Today Show, Bush revealed a collection of his paintings now on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, TX. Bush discussed his dealings with the Russian leader: “I had a good relationship with him throughout, it became more tense as time went on. In many ways, he views the U.S. as an enemy. He wouldn’t say that, [but] I felt that.” Putin’s worldview, Bush said, was that something was either good for the United States, or good for Russia, and “I tried to dispel him of that notion.”
What about the Barney reference? “When Putin called his dog ‘bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,’ I thought: wow, anyone who thinks ‘my dog is bigger than your dog’ is an interesting character,” and Bush’s painting of Putin reflects that, he said.
Bush has painted other world leaders as well, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which Bush says “reveals a compassionate person and a reliable friend.”
Putin’s seeming “American obsession” is not uncommon among Russian leaders. Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told then- Vice President Richard Nixon “your grandchildren will be communists.” “He was wrong,” Nixon later remarked in a memoir.
As to that Bush-Putin relationship in its early, pre-tense stages, “I looked into Vladimir’s eyes” and peered into his soul what was Bush had said, which years later drew scorn and ridicule by Democrats and Republicans alike. Apparently, the window into Putin’s soul is not through his eyes, but through his view of canines.
So how did Bush go from being Commander-in-Chief to Painter-in-Chief? He was inspired to paint by Winston Churchill’s essay “Painting is a Pastime,” he says, and through he had never before picked up a paintbrush, said “I wanted to make sure the last chapters of my life were full…and painting would help open my mind.”
As for the Barney painting, when Leno saw it, he joked: “I can’t even see where you painted over the number, that is beautifully done,” which drew a hearty laugh from the good-humored former president.