I envy few people — maybe Nelson Mandela for his indomitable courage, maybe Philip Roth for his abundant talent, maybe even George Clooney for how much he seems to enjoy being George Clooney. I add, tentatively and for different reasons, George W. Bush. The man has the serene self-confidence of a divine-right monarch. Day or night, he seems to sleep well.
This is Bush’s week. His presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas will be dedicated Thursday, with the current and all former presidents coming. This month, Bush’s daughter Jenna presented him with a grandchild — a very nice moment beyond politics. Congratulations, Mr. President. This is one of the few compensations of old age.
It was in the course of a story about the library and the birth of little Mila that Bush told the Dallas Morning News that, like Edith Piaf in one of her signature songs, he had no regrets. He did not belt it out in French — “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” — but he did amplify matters: “I’m comfortable with what I did. I’m comfortable with who I am.” He added, “Much of my presidency was defined by things you didn’t necessarily want to have happen.”
Yes, like your presidency.
Bush, however, lacks irony . . . or something. Another man in his position might stare at the ceiling at night, seeing the number 4,486 — the number of American dead in Iraq — blinking on and off. The death toll for Iraqis is much less exact — maybe as high as 1 million, maybe as low as about 100,000, still a pretty big number. The war enabled Iran to increase its regional influence, and the sheer senselessness of it so demoralized the American people — and the Obama White House — that we shy from foreign commitments. This is a ceiling plastered with rebukes.
But there is more. The war in Afghanistan was botched. Troops and attention were diverted to Iraq so that Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history, its purpose as impossible to remember or find as the Taliban itself. I must, before moving on, mention the U.S. economy, which at the end of Bush’s presidency was the worst since the Great Depression. Sleep vexed Macbeth but not George W. Bush.
How is such serenity possible? A likely answer presents itself in yet another recent interview, this one granted to Parade magazine. Laura Bush joined her husband and confirmed that he had taken up painting. “Well, George actually gave up cigars,” she said. “Who knew that he smoked them, but he did. He gave them up when we moved back [to Texas] and he was desperate for a pastime. So John Lewis Gaddis, the historian from Yale, happened to be in Dallas and they were talking. George said he was looking for a pastime now that he was home, and [Gaddis] said, ‘Well, read Churchill’s book “Painting as a Pastime.” ’ And George did.”
Never mind that Churchill smoked cigars and painted at the same time — he was a genius after all — but let us instead reflect on how, for Bush, smoking a cigar was a pastime. I can see him now, filling the hours, lighting the stogie, blowing on the ash, watching the smoke spiral to the heavens, putting the band on his little finger . . . my God, this could consume hours and hours, depending, of course, on the cigar itself. Painting could not fill half that time. By now, the man must be at his wits’ end.
In the very same Parade interview, Bush encouraged his brother Jeb to seek the presidency. This Jeb now seems inclined to do. If he does and he wins two terms, that would make the Bush family America’s foremost political dynasty — more White House years than the Roosevelts (FDR and cousin Teddy each served a shorter-than-usual term) or the Adamses (father John and son John Quincy). Books will be written on how this happened — as old Joe Kennedy spins in his grave. Credit it to George H.W. Bush’s bold decision to leave leafy, relatively liberal Connecticut and move south and west after World War II. The country followed and became more conservative. Bush 41 was a political pioneer.
Even now, some await the Great Vindication of George W. Bush. The about-face on Harry Truman is a supposed precedent — and clearly this is what Bush thinks will happen. Maybe WMD will emerge from the Iraqi desert. Maybe all the economic data were wrong. In the meantime, Bush is at ease with himself — always his gauge for right or wrong, smart or stupid. Among the many things he lacks is self-doubt. It is a gift.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.