Painting President Plays ‘Heckler in Chief’

‘Portraits of Courage’. Visit the exhibit through Oct. 1 at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at the SMU campus. Visit bushcenter.org for copies of the book. Prices start at $30. (Photo: William Taylor)

Even hands experienced with signing legislation, and accustomed to gripping golf clubs and paintbrushes, will occasionally lose hold of a writing instrument.

“You got me so excited I threw my pen at you,” former president George W. Bush joked after one took flight during a recent book signing for his Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.

Out of office, the self-described former art agnostic seeks to employ his new avocation, as well as his long-held love of sports, in support of military veterans who served him during his presidency.

He has become something of a painter in chief, though he adopts a different title for himself.

“He likes to call himself the ‘heckler in chief,’ ” said Jason Stamer, a retired U.S. Army infantry master sergeant who has golfed with the former president and been featured in a Bush painting. “He makes you laugh.”

Stamer was among 1,300 people who turned out in early June at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU to meet the nation’s 43rd president, get signed copies of the new book, and check out a related exhibit of Bush’s paintings.

Wearing a suit without a tie, the former president shook hands and joked with those coming through the line.

He wanted to know the birth month of a woman named Summer. August, she said.

“Well, that’s summer,” Bush said.

“You are not pulling for the LSU baseball team, are you?” Bush asked a man wearing Tigers apparel.

Bush credits his decision to paint to the example of Winston Churchill, another wartime leader who took up art out of office.

“I basically said, ‘What the hell, if he can paint, I can paint,’ ” Bush said this spring as he promoted his book on radio and television.

“You can only ride a mountain bike so much and shoot mediocre golf so much before you get a little anxious,” he explained during a May radio interview on 96.7 FM The Ticket.

Uninterested in art previously, Bush found a Dallas-area painting instructor after leaving office.

She hadn’t voted for him, Bush told Jimmy Kimmel. “As I’m sure you can understand, the art community was not exactly my base of support.”

After he graduated from doing pet portraits, he began painting from submitted photos of wounded U.S. military veterans.

The result: a book featuring 66 full-color portraits and a four-panel mural of veterans who have served since 9/11, along with stories about their service.

“This book to me means our stories are getting out there,” Stamer said.

Stamer, of Killeen, also has spent time on the golf course with Bush, including at the Bush Institute’s Warrior Open, which followed the AT&T Byron Nelson in May.

President Bush with wounded warrior at the 2017 Warrior Open. (Photo: Grant Miller)

“I hadn’t seen him since 2015 (and) he’s like, ‘Stamer, how have you been?’ ” the veteran recalled.

Bush hopes getting wounded vets together for golf and mountain biking will create opportunities for them to counsel each other about post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.

“Some vets come with an unwillingness to talk about their injury,” Bush explained in the radio interview. “Events like this help them come out of their shell.”

Other Americans can also help he added. “If you run into a vet, thank them. We need them for the future of the country.”

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