Has the feud between the press and the president got you down? Is the cynicism of the Democrats or the gloating of the GOP getting your goat? Are you worried about the wars and all those refugees?
My recommendation is to pick up a copy of “Portraits of Courage” by George W. Bush. It’s something that’s never been done before in America — a book of paintings of our soldiers by the commander-in-chief who sent them to war.
What an uplifting volume.
It’s a testament to, for sure, the GIs it portrays — and, by implication, to all our soldiers, airmen and sailors. It’s also a tale of life’s capacity to surprise, its ability to hand up new and unexpected lives not only to these veterans but also to their constitutional commander.
This is captured by Laura Bush, who writes in the foreword that had she been told her new husband one day would be president, she’d have thought, “Well, maybe.” But if she’d been asked might she one day be writing a foreword to a book of his paintings, she’d have exclaimed, “No way.”
The 43rd president himself writes that it all happened because, three years after he left office, he was feeling “antsy.” Then Professor Henry Louis Gates gave him a copy of Winston Churchill’s “Painting as a Pastime.”
It may be that my own enthusiasm for the resulting book has to do with the fact that when I came back from the war — Vietnam — I, too, eventually found my way to painting. And I, too, have learned its healing powers.
This is one of the things that glimmers in “Portraits of Courage.” It contains 66 portraits, in which we see not only the president’s penchant for rich and daring color and his knack for capturing a likeness but also for picturing personality.
In word as well as paint. Each of these paintings is accompanied by a profile of the sitter written by the former president. “Israel del Toro Jr. doesn’t remember the first time we met,” the president writes. “I’ll never forget it.”
The meeting was in Brooke Army Medical Center, where the Air Force master sergeant was in a medically induced coma. “His fingers and nose were pretty much gone,” Bush writes, “and the military physicians had given him a 15 percent chance of surviving.”
Del Toro’s wife and the president prayed, and the patient did more than survive. One hundred operations later, 43 writes, Del Toro became the first airman in the history of America to re-enlist with a 100 percent disability rating.
The portrait of him is painted in dark reds and ochers. It’s not a somber picture, but a smiling, triumphant warrior who’d made to his son a promise to survive.
Bush came to be his friend and sought, he wrote, to capture on canvas his “unconquerable soul.”
One striking portrait is of an Army lieutenant colonel named Ken Dwyer. You look at it and say, “Something looks glazy in the left eye.” Turns out Dwyer lost the eye — and an arm — to an RPG in Afghanistan.
At Walter Reed, the doctors kept Dwyer’s 3-year-old son away from his father for five weeks. When the boy was ushered in, Bush writes, he promptly kissed his father’s stitches and exclaimed, “Let’s play baseball.”
Dwyer, as Bush tells the story, learned to play one-armed baseball by watching old videos of Jim Abbott, a one-handed pitcher who, in 1993, threw a no-hitter for the Yankees. One day at one of his son’s games, Dwyer strode over to quarrel with an umpire.
Suddenly, Bush relates, Dwyer plucked out his prosthetic eye and proffered it to the ump, saying, “Here, you seem to need this a lot more than I do.” Dwyer told the story to Bush and golfer Lee Trevino, who learned the eye was engraved with the Special Forces Motto, “De Oppresso Liber.”
Where does America get this kind of grit? It’s beyond my ken, but all the more wonderful to discover that Bush has an eye not only for the kind of color, shadow and detail that make a painting but also for the written anecdote and element of surprise that illuminate a personal story.
What a great thing it would be were President Trump to throw President Bush a book party on the South Lawn of the White House.
They could invite every member of Congress and every one of the heroes the president of America painted.
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