I was on the phone with my father and I can’t remember exactly how we got to the part of the conversation we were destined to get to—the part of the conversation everyone was destined to get to—as we watched the unfathomable unfold on that morning of September 11, 2001. Two flights out of Boston bound, on paper anyway, for the city I was calling my father from on an otherwise normal Tuesday morning.
George W. Bush had been president for all of eight months.
Just weeks before Bush’s inauguration, I was among the modest crowd that hoisted signs and chanted things long lost to my memory as we lined up along the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Veterans Avenue across from the Federal Building. That’s a busy intersection, even for Los Angeles, and plenty of folks honked their horns in approval as they drove by. The unsteady calligraphy on my black-marker sign read: No Coup D’état in Florida. Sometimes, when the light was red, drivers would ask me what the heck that meant.
Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy read.
First off, you’d have to decipher my scrawl. Then you’d have to be up-to-the-minute on the machinations of Bush-friendly Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the right-leaning Supreme Court as they conspired to hand the White House to Bush. And, you’d have to be able to compute all that before the light turned green. Also, some grasp of the gaping chasm of potential outcomes that lay between a Bush world and a Gore one would help. In the dawning days of the Bush coup, our vistas clouded by the dust of Clinton fatigue, few could see how wide that chasm would turn out to be.
In the months that intervened between Bush assuming the position and September 11, I settled back into a relatively unfettered life. I had the Lakers and the Dodgers and a girlfriend and a dog and satisfying work and, like many in my Los Angeles bubble, a thousand ways to feel immune to the prosaic hostilities of Bush’s nascent presidency. Things like pulling out of the Kyoto Protocols, ramping up the war on drugs, privatizing the public interests in ways that would hurt others more me, attacking public education under the guise of “choice”, putting blind faith in the righteousness of “the markets” the way only masters of the universe can afford to, mainstreaming the tribal ignorance and stubbornness of the new Right, cutting a folksy Western mien despite silver-spoon privilege, swamping the swamp and on and on. The affronts to liberal sensibilities were many, but not much different than the typical bullshit we’d grown used to since Reagan. Not at first, anyway.
It all galled me of course, the way it had for years. But my low-grade outrage never amounted to much more than complaining and voting Democrat in a place where everyone votes Democrat. Not to mention I was doing just fine, personally. Or, that’s what I thought. Out there on the distant horizon, though, the chasm started yawning.
September is the middle of summer in Los Angeles and I remember the sunlight as much as anything—roses shimmering red, yellow and white outside my screen door. Or, maybe I’m conflating the thousands of times I walked out my door into an ordinary day with images of that Manhattan morning and how stark the two Boeing 767s and the twin towers looked against that maximum blue background.
Regardless, when I think of my father and I getting to that point in the conversation that all conversations that morning were bound to get to, I think of those roses outside the door and how brilliant they looked against the green backdrop of lawn.
What do you think we’ll do? I asked.
My father, who was dying of cancer at the time, said he didn’t know. He sounded deflated. He was born in the middle of the Great Depression and, as a boy, he put pins in a map on his wall to track the progress of World War II. I think he was fed up with there being no good answers.
Standing on at the top of the stoop, perhaps staring into the petals and folds of the roses, I thought I found one, or at least one that made sense to me.
We should do nothing, I said.
Nothing. We shouldn’t retaliate. We should just start rebuilding.
I don’t think that’s going to happen.
No, but that’s what we should do.
My father had been doing chemo and radiation for a while, to no avail. He was tired.
I don’t think we can do that, he said, but I’m afraid of what we will do.
He was afraid for the same reason many of us who’d gathered on the corner of Wilshire and Veteran’s Avenue months before were afraid: we knew that, despite our past disagreements with other presidents in our lifetimes—Nixon, certainly Reagan—this guy was different. We knew that this was our first sham president, a hollow man who had no business being the most dangerous person in the world.
Weeks after that phone call, I was with my father in Colorado. He was in bed, too weak to get up, too strong-willed to die yet. The combination of metastasizing cancer and morphine had turned him mostly inside out. His subconscious held the stage day and night, conducting an orchestra of heffalumps and woozles performing compositions of anxiety and regret. He was not, as they say, at peace with himself. Occasionally, though, he was lucid.
Such as the mid-November afternoon when he sat up in his bed while CNN played in the background and somnambulantly barked, “Can you believe this shit?” Images of Green Berets on horseback riding into battle alongside Northern Alliance cavalry were flashing across the screen. It’s about last cogent thing I remember my dad saying. He died just two weeks later.
Of course, the shit would get far more unbelievable. The sum of the fears written on signs and spoken in rhymes on the corner of Veteran’s Avenue and Wilshire months before would come to fruition, and then some. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 handed the biggest flamethrower in the world to a man anybody with any sense knew was dangerously ill-equipped to handle it. He proceeded to light the world on fire.
Nearly a decade after he slinked off the world stage in shame, the world is still smoldering in the wake of his cataclysmic presidency. Donald Trump is but one of the catastrophes, a fear-fed blaze rising from the red-hot ashes of Bush’s folly. So far, it’s hard to see where the bottom might be for the consequences of that Supreme Court decision of so many and not-enough years ago.
Bush, though, has mostly kept a low profile out of office. At times it seemed like he merely faded back into the wide-open obscurity of the Texas midlands from whence he once reinvented himself as a regular-guy, “compassionate-conservative,” albeit one with a boner for the death penalty while governor. During the Obama years, he would show up periodically on those occasions when ex-Presidents gather. Even under the shelter of the Obama’s grace, he appeared sallow and caved in. It was as if he shriveling in exile, perhaps from the weight of the damage he’d done.
Then came Bush the Artist.
After a lifetime of being “art-agnostic,” Bush took up painting in exile because he “felt antsy.” The first revelations of his paintings came when Guccifer hacked his phone back in 2013. The most shocking of them were that the all-but-disappeared ex-prez had been passing the time doing studies of himself in the bathtub and shower.
If the paintings were to be believed, the physicality of painting had been good for him. He looked fitter than he had on TV. Or, at least certain unclothed parts of him did, such as half-submerged legs in the bathtub, his back next to the showerhead. The images themselves were hard to come to terms with. They were clearly the work of a novice getting good instruction (palette, negative space, contrast, etc.) but also of an apt student.
Then, there was the subject matter, a man who forever seemed to be shielded behind a posture of entitled aplomb finally exposing himself if not fully, then more intimately than we’d been prepared for.
In many ways, the bathroom paintings smacked of trite, art-school solipsism. Here I am, naked! And yet, there was something more solemn, or at least supplicatory about the hacked images. The legs in the bathtub painting are disembodied, limp. The face in the mirror of the shower painting seems startled while the body feels ghostlike. As jejune as they might be in an art-school hopeful’s portfolio, from the hand of an ex-president—especially one as unreflective as Bush at least pretended to be—the stark and solitary cleansing rituals rendered in these paintings felt like pictographs of regret.
What then to make of the recent release of Portraits in Courage: A Commander-In-Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors?
The book is a collection of reproductions of Bush’s portraits of soldiers who suffered mental and/or physical casualties in the recent wars he started. On the one hand, the impudence is astounding. After all, he’s been painting for all of four years and this is not subject matter for a novice; especially not one whom some view as a war criminal for needlessly and heedlessly turning these servicemen and women into fodder. A more honest title might have been, “An Ill-Suited, Overmatched, Insecure President’s Tribute To People Whose Lives and Families He Fucked Up Real Bad.”
It didn’t help that Bush blithely, or guilelessly (douche or a dupe?—that’s always been the question.), said he started painting because if Churchill could do it, why the hell not him? Cue the voice of Lloyd Bentsen: I know Winston Churchill. I’m friends with Winston Churchill. You, sir are no…. Or that he offered up that his naked bathroom pictures were not, in fact, postcards from the edge, but a prank on his instructor.
On the other hand, the portraits, while derivative—Lucien Freud is obviously an inspiration—aren’t half bad. His technique has improved enough to justify moving on from scenes of bathroom repose and the ensuing portraits of dogs to tackle the weightier subject matter here. Also, though, as much as one (such as I) may not want to admit it, this is the work of a fledgling artist. Bush is present and believable here in ways he never was during the tragic posturing of his presidency. The paintings have some soul. And while they practically ask for forgiveness, they stop short of pandering sentimentality. Simply put, Bush the Artist is not nearly as feckless as was Bush the president.
Still, contrition is not atonement and what possibly could Bush do to atone? The litany of travesties— hundreds of thousands of civilian Iraqi deaths, 40,000 U.S. soldier casualties, $1.7 trillion wasted in those wars… ISIS, Katrina, the Great Recession— Bush and his minions (or puppet masters?) visited upon us adds up to sins there’s just not enough oil paint or blank canvasses or tony art instructors in the world to make amends for. Regardless of what you may believe about the redemptive or transformative power of art, Bush still did what Bush did.
And while you may want to read redemption into his coded critiques of Trump and his defense of the free press as check against the “addictive” and “corrosive” nature of power, Bush needs to go further to be forgiven and, I think, to be a real artist and not just a competent painter. He needs to expose himself more than he did in the bathroom. He needs to say to those portraits in courage, and to us, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” He has a chance to lead now in ways he couldn’t grasp then.
The journey begins there. But let’s pretend the journey began a long time ago and that Bush came into office an artist and not a Yankee rich kid playing at being a Texas wildcatter. Let’s say he came in actualized in the way his progress as a painter leads an optimistic sort to believe he may yet become in old age and exile. Let’s imagine what Bush the artist would have done in the days after September 11.
I like to think that he would have stood on top of the rubble and taken the bullhorn the way he did on September 14 and with his trademark brio simply said, “You cowards have achieved nothing but base murder. You will be found and brought to justice.” Imagine then, he picked up a shovel and went to work and that The Twin Towers were back in a year—roughly the time it took us to build the Empire State building during the Depression. Imagine the symbolism and power of that statement. Imagine how doing nothing but rebuilding and going about our business as a free, prosperous, magnanimous, united nation would have obviated the compounding destruction of that single day and that single act of terror. Imagine if we hadn’t curdled into the fearful, distraught, violent lot we’ve since become. Imagine no Iraq War, no ISIS, no Trump.
Imagine George Bush deserving what he’s always wanted—to be liked.
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist, writer and editor. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Journalism at Whittier College. Donnelly’s short story “Bonus Baby”, published in the spring/summer 2015 issue of Zyzzyva, is featured in the 2016 O. Henry Prize Stories Collection as one of the 20 best short stories of the year. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Huck, Los Angeles Weekly, Los Angeles Times, takepart.com, Washington Post, and many more.