Think of notable Texans, and former U.S. President George Walker Bush – quintessential cowboy with his boots, Southern drawl, and “aw-shucks” boyish charm – is likely one of the first to come to mind. But there is more to the 43rd president of the United States than meets the eye. Nine years after completing two terms in office punctuated by the controversial Iraq War and the tragedy of 9/11, Bush has returned to his Texas roots. Living at his Crawford ranch with wife Laura, he largely stays out of politics and the spotlight but has firmly planted himself at the forefront of veterans’ causes. He has even taken up an unexpected painting hobby and has integrated that talent, along with his passion for golf and mountain biking, to honor the sacrifices of post-9/11 wounded warriors while helping them succeed in civilian life.
“Anything he was interested in and passionate about while he was in office he’s continuing now,” said Emily Casarona, who manages the Team 43 Sports and Alumni Program for the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. Each year, the George W. Bush Institute holds the W100K, a three-day bike ride, and the Warrior Open, a golf tournament, for warriors who have invisible or physical scars from war.
“He actually to this day rides the mountain bikes with the boys and girls at his ranch, and he is probably better than most,” Casarona added. “And at the golf tournament he does not actually play with them; he never has because he doesn’t want to spend time with only one or two of the warriors, so he rides around on the golf cart and watches them tee off, so he’s able to spend quality time with all of them.”
In February 2017, Bush published Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, a book of portraits of wounded warriors he painted himself, along with their personal stories of valor. Proceeds from the book’s sales benefit the George W. Bush Presidential Center and its Military Service Initiative, which, according to the presidential center’s website, “maximize(s) the health and well-being of post-9/11 veterans and military families.”
The leadership-centric George W. Bush Institute, located at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, was founded in 2009. Its programs include the Presidential Leadership Scholars, a partnership between the presidential centers of George W. and George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Lyndon B. Johnson, which aims to solve social issues by educating its participants on engaging others, decision-making, influencing stakeholders, and forming strategic partnerships; the Women’s Initiative Fellowship, which helps women in Egypt and Tunisia further their influence with skills training and resources; and the Liberty and Leadership Forum, which shapes young people into leaders.
“I think one of the most widely heard phrases the staff hears is ‘I can’t believe y’all do all that,’” Casarona said.“And [former] President Bush and Mrs. Bush are involved in everything personally. I’m blessed enough to see it firsthand with the veterans, and I think that’s why it’s so special and life-changing for them is they see he’s sincere.”
Sgt. Timothy Gaestel, one of the veterans whose portrait was featured in the book, said he believes there was an image people had of Bush as president.“He wants people to have this image,” Gaestel said. “I don’t know if it’s different. From what I gather, President Bush wants to help the veterans, and he doesn’t care what it takes. It’s amazing to me that he’s putting his own energy into this. He’s part of it; he’s there.”
A PRESIDENT’S PERSONAL TOUCH
Inspired by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a prolific painter, Bush reportedly turned to art for relaxation and to keep his mind active. He even hired a teacher to help him “liberate . . . (his) inner Rembrandt,” he wrote in the introduction to Portraits of Courage. Bush kept his hobby under wraps until around 2013, when his sister Dorothy Koch’s email account was hacked and his works were posted online, according to the article.
His subjects have ranged from world leaders (his father, President George H.W. Bush; Russian President Vladimir Putin; and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, to name a few) to entertainers (he presented a portrait to late-night TV host Jay Leno during a visit to his show) to the more personal, including his Scottish Terrier Barney and oft-discussed self-portraits in the shower and bathtub.
Following the release of Portraits of Courage, Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott was quoted in a Telegraph news article discussing Bush’s work. “No matter what you think of George W. Bush, he demonstrates in this book and in these paintings virtues that are sadly lacking at the top of the American political pyramid today: curiosity, compassion, the commitment to learn something new, and the humility to learn it in public,” Kennicott said. “There is ample evidence that the former president is more humble and curious than the Swaggering President Bush he enacted while in office. And his curiosity about art is not only genuine but relatively sophisticated.”
Portraits of Courage has become Bush’s most celebrated body of artwork. The book features 98 portraits of wounded warriors, along with their stories, written by Bush. The Portraits of Courage art exhibit was on display March 2 through October 17, 2017, at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The exhibit is currently touring the United States, with stops in San Antonio, Midland, Springfield, Missouri, and Palm Beach, Florida.
Sgt. Timothy Gaestel, of Cedar Park, is one of the 98 veterans featured in the book. Gaestel enlisted in the Army in 2001, just a month before 9/11, to earn money for college. Ten days into his tour of duty in Iraq, he was injured when a roadside IED detonated, lodging two pieces of shrapnel into his lower back. Gaestel stayed in Iraq another eight months before coming home to Texas, where his physical and emotional battle scars lingered.
“That first year in Austin after I came home I didn’t recognize myself,” Gaestel said. “I started going to school, and my dad saw I was having a lot of problems so after about a year he was like, ‘How about you come with me and let’s go play golf?’ We went to this historic golf club in Austin. . . where Ben Crenshaw played growing up. I was no longer worried about what happened to me in Iraq. Golf made it so those sleepless nights and bad dreams were gone. I was worrying about my tee time or my swing. It gave me something (new) to focus on.”
Gaestel, now a high school golf coach, said he got the idea to start an organization to help wounded warriors like him through golf, but when he began to research it, he found that others had already had the same idea. “When I found (out about) the Warrior Open, (I learned) there were a bunch of guys who found it the same way. Finding 24 other guys that all happened to find golf. . . . was cool, and then to be highlighted in a book by President Bush was the icing on the cake, a way to be even more connected with these guys,” he said.
Bush’s oil painting renderings were based on photographs of the warriors, Gaestel said, adding that he did not know which photo the president selected until he saw the finished painting. Though honored to be painted by a former U.S. president and featured in a book, seeing the painting was a wakeup call. “I was able to show my high school golf team a couple of paintings in the book,” he said. “And the first thing they said was, ‘Wow coach, he painted all of your chins, too.’ If you look at the picture versus his painting, he really did a good job. But it motivated me, and I’ve lost 81 pounds since. I’m back down to what I should weigh, and I owe that to him for painting a fat portrait of me.”
Gaestel said he had the opportunity to tell Bush how he had inspired him. “It was good to say, ‘Hey, I appreciate you painting my portrait; you probably added ten years to my life.’ He laughed and said I looked good and joked if I (would be) able to keep up with him on a mountain bike. He’s very playful with all of us, jokes around a lot. When he walks into a room, everybody knows he just walked into the room. That’s just his persona. I don’t think he does anything to be like that, I think that’s just how he is.”
The first time Gaestel met Bush was at the Warrior Open, he said. “I thought it was going to be this official thing where you all line up in the room, and you’re going to shake his hand,” he recalled. “(instead) I was in a café in a nice golf country club. We were sitting at a table with my dad (and with) other tour professionals. I’m listening to these stories, and out of nowhere President Bush sits right next to me and looks at me and says, ‘Are you ready to play some golf?’ He knows all of us, he knows our names, he knows our stories, he knows my job; he asked questions about my high school golf team when I saw him a couple of weeks ago. He really cares.”
Casarona agreed. “He spends one-on-one time with them; he’s not shy about asking them meaningful questions,” she said. Gaestel, Casarona said, is not the only veteran Bush has personally influenced.
“A warrior was asked to come back and ride with (Bush) on his ranch, and President Bush was so incredibly proud of him . . . because last year President Bush was telling him, ‘What are you doing? You’ve put on a lot of weight,’ and challenged him to get healthy again because he wasn’t keeping up on the ride like he did years ago.”
With Bush’s encouragement, the veteran lost 85 pounds in one year. “Now you can see the smile on his face, how much healthier he is, how much better he feels about himself,” she said.
MAKING HIS MARK
George W. Bush was the oldest of six children born to George Herbert Walker Bush and Barbara Pierce Bush on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut. Politics were in the Bush bloodline: his grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a Republican senator and his father, George H.W., would eventually become the 41st president of the United States.
The family moved to Midland in 1948, and young George W. spent much of his childhood in the West Texas town, where his father amassed a fortune from the oil business. In 1961, the Bushes moved to Houston, and George W. was sent to prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, where he was said to be a fair student who excelled in sports. As a student at Yale, his grades continued to take a back seat to his busy social life.
He enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. He earned his fighter pilot certification in 1970 and was honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserve in 1974. He graduated with his Master’s of Business Administration from Harvard Business School the following year. Like his father before him, Bush returned to Midland and began working in the oil business. He met teacher and librarian Laura Welch at a barbecue in 1977, and they married the same year. The couple welcomed twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, in 1981.
In the late ‘80s, the Bushes moved to Washington, D.C. so that Bush could begin campaigning for his father’s presidential bid. When the elder Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. ran for governor of Texas and won, becoming the first child of a U.S. president to be elected governor. He also was later the first Texas governor elected to serve consecutive four-year terms.
By the late 1990s, Bush had his sights set on the White House. In a complicated victory peppered with legal wrangling, Bush won the electoral vote over his Democratic opponent Al Gore and, thus, the presidency. In 2004, he ran for re-election against Senator John Kerry and won again. Having faced 9/11, the single worst terrorist attack on American soil in its history, and calling for the invasion of Iraq two years later, Bush’s second term was comparatively tame. Still, by the time he left office in 2008, his approval ratings were just 33 percent. By January 2018, his favorability among Americans had jumped to 61 percent.
Bush wrote in Portraits of Courage that, with grandkids, travel, working with the presidential center, biking, and golfing, he has kept busy since leaving the White House. Still, he wrote, “My life didn’t seem complete. I wanted a new adventure.”
Under the tutelage of Dallas artist Gail Norfleet, Bush worked out of his man cave-turned-studio, painting what he liked: animals and landscapes. At the suggestion of Dallas artist Roger Winter, he began painting world leaders. Determined to learn from as many experts in the field as he could, Bush sought the advice of painter Sedrick Huckaby, who said he should paint people he knew who others did not; instantly, he thought of the T43 warriors, and the idea for Portraits of Courage was born.
“I painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage,” Bush wrote in Portraits of Courage. “I hope to draw attention to the challenges some face when they come home and transition to civilian life, and the need for our country to better address them.
“…This is more than an art book. This is a book about men and women who have been tremendous national assets in the Armed Forces, and who continue to be vital to the future success of our country. This is a tribute to the men and women who volunteered, many in the years after 9/11, to defend our country. The greatest honor of the Presidency was looking them in the eye and saluting them as their Commander in Chief. And I intend to salute and support them for the rest of my life.”