Among the most eloquent words spoken by a U.S. president were those about the war dead.
They were delivered in Abraham Lincoln’s famous address at Gettysburg, months after the Civil War’s pivotal battle, to acknowledge its horrific toll. Publicly, Lincoln was artful and sincere. Privately, he grappled with the enormity of his charge to those who fought and fell.
President Trump has struggled to strike the same chords when addressing this fragile topic. And his feud this week with the loved ones of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 in Niger alongside three other soldiers, has brought into painful focus both the often grim responsibilities presidents have during wartime, and the challenges they, too, face when confronting the questions and consequences surrounding their decisions to put young men and women in harm’s way.
Consider former president George W. Bush, who launched the conflicts Trump has inherited. As the commander in chief, Bush oversaw the return of thousands of troops in flag-draped transfer cases. Many more came home forever changed, some missing limbs, others with their minds racked with post-traumatic stress and blast injuries.
The president and those he sent into battle converged at Walter Reed, the military hospital where war wounded received care. For Bush, being commander in chief became central to his identity, as he noted during his 17th and final visit to the hospital before leaving office. It was “the thing I’ll miss the most,” he said in December 2008.
“Coming here to Walter Reed,” Bush noted, “is a reminder of why I’ll miss it.”
The costly wars Bush launched are unfinished, and early drafts of history have not been kind to his administration. The Iraq war began over faulty intelligence and created a security vacuum eventually filled by the Islamic State. The war in Afghanistan has entered its 16th year.
Since leaving Washington, he has turned to advocacy for the wounded, hosting two annual events — a bike ride and a golf tournament — through the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. “It makes him feel like he can continue his commitment,” said one former Bush administration official.
Bush also turned to painting.
Released this year, his best-selling book, “Portraits of Courage,” is a collection of oil paintings featuring 98 vets with whom he has interacted.
One of them, Michael Rodriguez, a former Special Forces soldier, encountered so many explosions his left eye scrambled. He now wears a prosthetic lens, transforming his iris emerald green. Bush’s portrait of Rodriguez is one of seven on the book’s cover.
Bush perfectly captured his passion and focus, Rodriguez told The Washington Post.
“He knows us. We’re not just random people,” Rodriguez said, adding that Bush makes efforts to learn the service history and family details of veterans he encounters. “This is not a ‘poor veterans’ book. It’s a book of America.”
Rodriguez, who also took up painting as a form of art therapy, stopped short of saying whether the portraits or private conversations with Bush reveal the former president’s lingering doubts or regrets about the wars.
It hasn’t come up, Rodriguez said. All they discuss is painting.
Bush has been out of office for nearly a decade, but the difficult moments of his presidency almost certainly weigh on his mind, said Miguel Howe, a former Army officer and fellow at the Bush Institute.
“All of us at all levels, from the president all the way down to the junior fire team leader, live with decisions and consequences,” Howe said.
In her book “And The Good News Is,” Dana Perino, who was Bush’s press secretary, recounted a 2005 visit to Walter Reed. It was marked by a tense moment with the mother of a gravely wounded service member. The mother wanted to know why her child, and not Bush’s, was clinging to life, Perino wrote.
The president tried unsuccessfully to comfort her. So rather than continue to speak, he simply listened, absorbing her anger and grief.
Departing the hospital aboard Marine One, Bush allowed a single tear to roll down his cheek, Perino noted in her book.
“That mama sure was mad at me,” the president said. “And I don’t blame her a bit.”
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