“On a stormy Atlantic crossing in 1630, one of the first immigrants to the New World wasn’t sure if he would make it,” writes former-president-turned-amateur-painter George W. Bush in the opening to his second book of paintings, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants, out in April from Crown Publishing. Bush begins with the story of a Puritan named John Winthrop, an archetypal good immigrant and a seminal figure in the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By Bush’s account, if it weren’t for immigrants like Winthrop, there would be no USA. (Genocide and massive displacements are just unfortunate—and for Bush, unacknowledged—consequences.) He references John F. Kennedy’s, then Ronald Reagan’s praise of American immigrants, as if to demonstrate a long-standing bipartisan embrace of American diversity.
“While I recognize that immigration can be an emotional issue,” Bush muses, “I reject the premise that it is a partisan issue.” He describes his decision to avoid publishing his book in an election year: he didn’t want the people he painted to “become exploited politically.” Grandfatherly Bush, who is photographed on the title page painting a portrait of his late father, George H. W. Bush, plays the measured and reflective elder statesman. He writes that immigration evokes fear and division, and presidents can either stoke these sentiments or soothe them: Bush, in retirement, takes the latter approach with his paintings, casting himself as an advocate for immigration reform by celebrating American diversity. But not too much reform: in his introduction, he maintains the need to “enforce our borders” and affirms that the pathway to citizenship should remain “challenging, time-consuming, and competitive,” even as he complains that the immigration system is “confusing, costly, and inefficient.”
Bush’s painting style is inelegant: his subjects’ eyes are often misaligned, his colors are sometimes muddied, and even though he attempts to create depth and shadow, the facial features ultimately fail to convey anything resembling human warmth. The book, providing an honorific framing, bestows a dignity upon his subjects that his presidential policies did not. Bush beatifies these immigrants, both living and dead, for their patriotic sacrifice and assimilation, repeating stories of immigrants’ dedication to hard work and their service to the American state.
Each portrait is paired with a short narrative describing the subject’s relation to the former president: participants in the George W. Bush Institute for Global Leadership, recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or the Mexican nanny named Paula Rendon who was lovingly present in so many of his childhood memories. Naturally, the very first painting is of Lady Liberty, immigrant par excellence, and the only nonhuman depicted. Sculpted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and gifted by France, the neoclassical robed statue of the Roman goddess Libertas has greeted refugees and immigrants approaching Ellis Island since 1886. She was—and, symbolically, still is—the very first American to welcome them onto American soil and into the American mythos.
Reading Bush’s versions of these immigrant biographies, a pattern quickly emerges. He wants us to see them as having worked hard to earn their citizenship because they’ve overcome traumatic circumstances—war and genocide, terrorist attacks in their homeland, communism and despotic leadership, grinding poverty—and, after all that, still proved their commitment to American values. This sort of juxtaposition—exceptional overcoming meets averageness and anonymity—attempts to fuel a rapidly dwindling belief in the American Dream. It is an attitude exemplified in the motto that appears on the Great Seal of the United States, which Bush borrows in translation for his title: E pluribus unum.
The book’s fourth portrait is of Madeleine Albright. Her gaze is direct, and the downturned corners of her mouth suspend her expression in her signature smirk-like smile. The high collar of her blazer is equal parts feminine elegance and masculine seriousness, befitting the first female secretary of state, who herself arrived at Ellis Island as a refugee from Czechoslovakia in 1948. Another secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, follows Albright. His face is alert and curious, the portrait presenting a facade of youthfulness that long ago abandoned the nonagenarian. Bush describes how Kissinger was naturalized during basic military training in 1943. But the painter-president glosses over these cabinet officers’ political records, as he does his own, opting instead to present their inspirational careers and personal anecdotes. “Ultimately, we’re just a couple of proud American grandparents,” Bush concludes, comparing himself to Albright.
The oil paintings are, one must admit, pleasant. The artist’s subjects, whether alone or with family members, smile or look placidly at the viewer. They are imbued with a bright aura, as though they have been blessed by an angel named America and the gift of their naturalized citizenship has literally haloed them with light. The paintings perfectly illustrate a key distinction that Vladimir Nabokov drew in his posthumously published essay on Dostoyevsky: “a sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time” but “a sensitive person is never a cruel person.” Here, our sentimental former president lovingly depicts members of the very communities he harmed through his relentless assaults on civil liberties.
THESE PASTEL PORTRAITS and neat narratives exemplify art at its most dangerous. Art is often a medium for revising and re-remembering, or for the “aestheticization of politics” that Walter Benjamin warned about in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Here, Bush has celebrated the immigrant, the asylum seeker, and the refugee for their outstanding competence as workers, their inspiring stories of overcoming, their proof that the United States is still the place where dreams come true. But can anyone, let alone a former president, make apolitical art?
In her book On Beauty and Being Just (1999), Elaine Scarry argues that beauty sometimes “distracts attention from wrong social arrangements.” Bush’s presidential authority draws some attention to his otherwise unremarkable and insincere-feeling portraits. But paying attention to his aesthetic qualities, rather than his political actions, would mean participating in the image rehabilitation that he enjoyed throughout the Trump administration. Bush might want his paintings to reflect a post-career softness: his delicate hobby is a new development in his not-so-smart, not-so-sophisticated good old boy from Texas persona. It’s difficult to imagine Trump taking up a hobby that requires so much patience in his retirement. But ultimately, Bush and Trump differ far more on matters of manners and presidential decorum than on political opinion.
Bush wants us to see the horror of the Trump administration as an anomaly. But Trump is far more a reflection of Bush than his opposite. The former’s neglect of Puerto Rico’s material and economic devastation following Hurricane Maria in 2017 recalled the horrifying images of deserted Black Louisiana residents begging for rescue from their roofs after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall twelve years prior. Trump’s witch hunts for the nebulous Antifa and his targeting of both naturalized and undocumented immigrants were made possible by the Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), both Bush-era creations. Trump’s Muslim ban, too, is a logical extension of Islamophobic post-9/11, post-Patriot Act security theater. When an emboldened white supremacist mob stormed the United States Capitol in protest of Trump’s electoral ousting, Bush valiantly reminded the public that this is “how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic,” as though his campaign halting Florida’s vote recount didn’t steal him his first presidential term.
The book is not actually about immigrants, it is a part of a vanity project. It is far more about distinguishing Bush’s policies from Trump’s exceptionally cruel authoritarian lunacy, which transgresses normal Republican behavior. Out of Many, One is no honest reckoning with the ways that, for example, Bush’s 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized and funded fencing on the US-Mexico border, laid the groundwork for Trump’s untenable border wall. The immigrants in his book have no voices of their own, save, in some cases, a few selective quotes. Instead, they are subsumed into Bush’s self-serving narrative. They are tendentiously chosen, too: there are no undocumented immigrants, no immigrants who regret having left or who never wanted to leave their homes, no immigrants who refused to learn English or who “failed” to find upward mobility.
ONE IMAGE STRIKES ME as completely unlike the others. Rather than being swathed in supple, soft light, Medal of Honor awardee Florent Groberg stares blankly ahead like a robot: of Algerian descent, he has olive-toned skin painted in a sickly palette of grays. Bush seems to have used only black and white paint rather than his usual pastels, except when rendering this subject’s radiant gold medal. But Groberg’s narrative is written much like the others’, focusing on his military career and detailing his trajectory from the “ghetto” in Achères, France, to his heroic intervention: while serving in Afghanistan, he saved members of his team from a suicide bomber and was severely wounded. Groberg resembles a silvered humanoid trophy, a testament to the kind of reverence that the former president has for the exalted, yet still disposable, troops who valiantly protect American freedoms. Especially inspiring to him are immigrant soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their new home: he notes that of the 3,500 individuals recognized with this highest military honor since it was first awarded in 1863, more than 700 have been immigrants.
If these paintings had not been made by a former president, they might not be worth mentioning at all. There’s nothing stylistically noteworthy about them, but some viewers might find them comforting, like art you might find at an estate sale. Given their heightened pastel colors and loose brushstrokes, one might find an aesthetic precedent in Expressionist portraiture. But Expressionist artists deliberately refused to be tethered to the rigidity of realism in form and color; Bush, by contrast, would probably love to paint realistically, if only he could. His portraits carry an air of maddening childishness, and not only because he is unskilled. His previous book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (2017), is a collection of sixty-six portraits of soldiers who have served since the September 11 attacks, in the wars Bush began. These paintings of soldiers and immigrants are unsettlingly naive in that they reflect a yearning for a chimerical time when politics was honest and uncomplicated. How can we believe in the earnestness of these works when the artist’s apparent kindness was blatantly contradicted by his presidential policies? Bush adopts a higher moral ground when the stakes are especially low, when he’s no longer commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military.
A generous reading of these portraits might be that they are positive representations of immigrants and, as such, could help initiate revision of the popular political imaginary. But not only is this positive representation limited, predictable, and ultimately exceptional, the insidious sentimentality behind it fosters the notion that there are “good immigrants” worth assimilating—and many others who aren’t. If you believe that positive representation has the power to sway public opinion, the contrast between Bush’s paintings and his policies seems proof of the gulf between art and life that can exist within a single man’s imagination. Though Sunday painting is viewed as a polite hobby and portraiture can be a sign of respect, Bush manages to make a perverse spectacle of both.
This article appears in the March/April 2021 issue, pp. 20–23.