Thursday, March 23, 2017

A boy in full -- seeing George W. Bush in a new light -- March 23, 2017 column

By MARSHA MERCER 

One of the year’s biggest surprises so far is former President George W. Bush’s success as a portrait painter.

His “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” tops this week’s New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists. The book contains 66 oil paintings and a four-panel mural of veterans as well as their stories, written by Bush.

Unpopular when he left office, Bush has gained stature in retirement by keeping a low profile and devoting himself to his art and humanitarian causes. The book’s proceeds benefit Bush’s foundation that helps wounded veterans.

Even former first lady Laura Bush was surprised by her husband’s picking up paint brushes at age 66, four years ago. Had someone told her when they married that one day she would write a foreword to a book containing her husband’s paintings, Laura Bush writes, “I would have said, No way.”

But long before he started painting and before he left Texas for prep school and the Ivy League, Bush was a boy of 1950s America.

Just as “Portraits” presents the 43rd president as a compassionate artist, the George W. Bush Childhood Home in Midland, Texas, opens a window on a nostalgic view of American life and values in the post-war era.  

Docent Kay Manley, a retired oil and gas accountant, gave me a tour earlier this month. As a girl, she attended the same Methodist church and took piano and dancing classes with Laura Bush, a Midland native.

“Most people don’t realize the Bushes were such ordinary people,” Manley said. “Barbara Bush made her own curtains.”

The modest house – a 1,400-square-foot bungalow with blue-gray wood siding, three bedrooms, one bath and no central air -- was home to “two presidents, two governors and one first lady,” Manley said. “No other house can say that.”

Besides “W,” she was referring to former President George H.W. Bush, first lady Barbara Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose nursery was in the sun room. Neil Bush was also born while the family lived in the house. Two other children came along later. 

The house has been meticulously restored to the way it looked when the Bushes lived there from 1951 to 1954. Georgie, as he was called, did his homework on a small desk in his knotty pine-paneled bedroom, rode his bike, played catcher on the Midland Cubs Little League team (his dad was manager), was a Cub Scout (his mom was den mother) and went to the Presbyterian church on Sundays.

Asked while running for president his fondest childhood memory, Bush said: “Little League baseball in Midland.”

The home avoids mentioning Bush’s policies and politics – topics best left to the presidential libraries and museums, said Paul St. Hilaire, director of the childhood home. Bush’s library and museum are in Dallas.

“We’re a cultural and historic site,” he said.

Papa Bush was on his way up in the oil business, and his young family was on the move. Young George, born in Connecticut while his dad was in college, lived in at least 14 different homes in three states and eight cities in his first 18 years, according to a National Park Service survey of the home for inclusion in the park system.

He lived longest on Ohio Avenue, and Bush often refers to the values he learned there. His childhood was also a time of sadness. His sister Robin died at age 4 of leukemia while the family lived in the house. 

The home is on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the first 1950s residential restorations. The attention to detail is remarkable – not just the turquoise fridge and TV with rabbit ears, vintage wallpaper and black dial phone but also period door hinges. More than 70,000 people have visited since it opened in 2006.

History buffs Lynn Hassler, 62, a retired teacher from Pennsylvania, and her husband Randy stopped by while visiting their son and grandchildren. She didn’t vote for W nor did she vote for Donald Trump. But Trump’s election has caused Hassler to reassess Bush.

“He’s looking a lot better,” she said.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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