President George W. Bush served in the Oval Office for eight of the most consequential years in U.S. history. Since leaving office, he has focused on supporting vital causes ranging from education reform to an issue that hits very close to home—caring for America’s veterans and their families. He has also pursued a new passion for oil painting, working on portraits of beloved family members as well as the world leaders he came to know well while in office.
In his new book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, President Bush combines his dedication to helping the men and women who have served our country with his love of painting, creating a “vibrant collection of oil paintings and stories…honoring the sacrifice and courage of America’s military veterans.”
WSB had the distinct privilege of reaching out to President Bush to talk about Portraits of Courage, his inspiration, and how every American can help veterans.
“I want everyday Americans to see what remarkable men and women we have in our military and what tremendous challenges they’ve overcome.”
WSB: Your painting has drawn a lot of interest and attention in the years since leaving the White House. You’ve said you were inspired by fellow painter and world leader Winston Churchill. How has learning to paint impacted your life?
President Bush: I’ve always admired Churchill’s leadership, but one aspect of his life I never considered was his painting. In the post-presidency, I’ve enjoyed giving speeches to WSB groups and working on issues that matter to Laura and me at the Bush Institute, but I wanted a new hobby. Churchill’s essay “Painting as a Pastime” inspired me, and it really has changed my life. I look at the world differently. I see colors and wonder how I would mix them. I study artists I ignored in my younger years. It has been a wonderful journey and an important lesson: an old dog can learn new tricks.
The TODAY show featured the stories of veterans honored in Portraits of Courage, who joined President Bush in a discussion with Matt Lauer.
WSB: You have done so much work with our veterans since leaving office, and it’s an issue very close to your heart. What prompted you to begin painting portraits of the veterans you have come to know, leading to the creation of this book?
President Bush: One of my instructors, a talented portrait artist named Sedrick Huckaby, had seen my earlier series on world leaders and suggested that I paint people whom I know, but others don’t. Instantly I thought of painting wounded warriors I’ve become friends with through the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative. I painted them as a way to show my gratitude for their service and sacrifice, and also to inspire others. I want everyday Americans to see what remarkable men and women we have in our military and what tremendous challenges they’ve overcome. And I want veterans who may be struggling, particularly with invisible wounds of war like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, to see that they aren’t alone – that with treatment, they can recover and continue to serve in new ways as civilians.
“These are all remarkable individuals who stepped forward to serve our country. They volunteered, and they paid a dear price for our freedom. We are blessed to live in a country that produced patriots like these.”
WSB: The story of every wounded warrior is moving and significant, were there any from the book you found to be particularly powerful?
President Bush: That’s a hard question. I find them all compelling – that’s why I painted them and told their stories. These are all remarkable individuals who stepped forward to serve our country. They volunteered, and they paid a dear price for our freedom. We are blessed to live in a country that produced patriots like these. I only wish I could paint every veteran, and tell every story, because I’m deeply grateful to each and every one of them.
“I’m going to spend the rest of my life making sure our veterans transitioning out of the military are empowered to succeed in their new missions as civilians.”
WSB: Veterans’ issues continue to be a foremost concern for lawmakers and citizens alike. What do you consider the most pressing issue facing veterans today?
President Bush: It should be. Supporting our veterans is a solemn responsibility – one we all have, whether we’re in government or the private sector, Republican or Democrat. As Commander in Chief, I vowed to make sure our troops on the battlefield had everything they needed to succeed. Now that I’m a civilian, I’m going to spend the rest of my life making sure our veterans transitioning out of the military are empowered to succeed in their new missions as civilians.
Speaking with Ellen Degeneres, President Bush’s humor and grace shone through as he discussed his work with America’s wounded warriors.
WSB: You are donating the proceeds of this book to The George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Military Service Initiative. Can you tell us more about the Military Service Initiative’s work and objectives?
Portraits of Courage was a real labor of love for me. I spent about a year painting these portraits and writing these stories, and I hope they inspire people.
President Bush: The Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative is focused on veterans transition research, and policy programs. We’ve come a long way since the Vietnam era, when our veterans returned home from war and were treated shabbily. It was a despicable period. Today, thankfully, there’s a huge outpouring of gratitude to and support for our veterans. In fact, there are some 50,000 non-profit organizations related to that cause. For a veteran, that can be overwhelming, so the Bush Institute has developed resources to help navigate what’s available and find what works best for them. On the employment front, we joined with the Chamber of Commerce and launched the VET Roadmap, an online tool that can help transitioning veterans prepare for and find meaningful careers. On the wellness front, we are working to eliminate the stigma associated with the invisible wounds of war, and we recently launched the Warrior Wellness Alliance. The alliance connects veterans peer-to-peer networks with the highest-quality care centers so that vets can find the right kind of treatment for their needs at the level of service they deserve. All of these resources are available at bushcenter.org, and I encourage anyone who is looking for help to start there.
Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about this. Portraits of Courage was a real labor of love for me. I spent about a year painting these portraits and writing these stories, and I hope they inspire people. The proceeds from the book benefit effective, meaningful programs, and an exhibit showcasing the artwork in the book will be on display at the Bush Center in Dallas until October 1.
The president also appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss Portraits of Courage, and shared personal stories about his parents, family, and youth.
Visit WSB online to learn more about bringing President Bush to your next event.