Last week, the public got a sneak peak at the products of George W. Bush’s post-presidency hobby: his self-portraits. A hacker, who goes by the alias Guccifer, broke into the e-mail accounts of multiple Bush family members, sharing private documents that included photos of the paintings in question, which Dubya had e-mailed to his sister. Independent of the news of this hacking and the current Secret Service investigation into it, the self-portraits present themselves as a curious conversation piece.
In one painting, Bush stands in the shower, his bare back to the viewer. Next to him, water streams down from the shower head. A small mirror hanging on the wall above reflects his blurry face. The other self-portrait shows even less of the former president’s bathing body: He appears only from the thighs down, disembodied legs floating in the tub. Again water flows out of the faucet, and toes peek out of the water above his submerged shins. The third of the leaked photographs shows real-live Bush in the act of painting, this time not a self-portrait but a stone church, as he stands in the weight room of the family house in Kennebunkport, Maine.
What is it that’s so fascinating about these photos? Not only has a former president been exposed at a vulnerable moment — painting himself in the bathroom, no less — but this is George W. Bush we’re talking about.
He wasn’t exactly dignified even when he was in the White House — beyond the many failed policies, there were the misused words in speeches, the barely dodged shoe, the pretzel-choking incident and others. In the years since he left the presidency with his tail between his legs, his party has strenuously avoided any reference to him. The image that survives of the younger Bush in the American psyche is that of a big, round-shouldered child, perpetually bossed around and reprimanded by his superiors.
So our first reaction to these secret works of art was surprise that the ex-president had undertaken such a serious and strikingly adult pastime as painting. Especially after all the publicity shots we endured during his campaign and ensuing presidency of him roughin’ it down at the Bush family Texas ranch, it takes some mental effort to make the switch to an image of Dubya painting sensitive, delicate — and not altogether unskilled — landscapes and portraits.
At the same time, the hacked paintings fit curiously well with Bush’s childish reputation. Bloggers and columnists have speculated about what the subject of bathing could signify within Bush’s life; the popular hypothesis is that it represents a kind of cleansing from the sins and embarrassment of his unspectacular presidency. A more compelling analysis of the works, we think, focuses on the unmistakably childish perspective of the self-portraits. As he gazes at his own toes in the tub, it’s easy to imagine a rubber ducky floating between his shins, or perhaps some squeaky bath toys. The shower portrait is reminiscent of a pubescent boy’s tendency to stand motionless in the shower for half an hour, lost in thought and wasting water.
The paintings are both bizarre and satisfying because they simultaneously challenge and affirm Bush’s image as a juvenile, inarticulate (and always slightly simian) simpleton. You have to wonder: Is there something more to this man than we always thought? Is he an introspective, talented artist, boldly exposing himself at his most vulnerable? Is the muted palette carefully executed to reflect an aura of tranquility? The alternative, of course, is that he’s the Dubya we’ve always known him to be — just with more time on his hands now to sit around in the tub.