I sat down with former President George W. Bush in Los Angeles, California Thursday morning. The conversation was wide ranging, but mostly about his wonderful new book Portraits of Courage: A Commander In Chief’s Tribute To America’s Warriors
HH: Morning glory, America, special conversation with former President George W. Bush about his brand new book, Portraits of Courage. Because I’m on the radio, Mr. President, I can use my notes. That’s an actual advantage over Sean Hannity and other people
W: Perfect. Perfect.
HH: Congratulations, it’s a beautiful book. The proceeds are going to whom, Mr. President?
W: The proceeds will be going to the Bush Foundation’s Veterans Program. We’ve got initiatives to help our vets transition from the military to the civilian world with job placement programs as well as a wellness program that was really the reason why I wrote and published this book, because I want people to be aware of the invisible wounds of war.
HH: I talk a few times a year with the Semper Fi Fund people.
HH: And there are a lot of PTSD people who are just now realizing that they’ve got Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So I imagine the foundation has to be built for the long haul to take care of our veterans for a long time.
W: Well, that’s the key, because the money’s going to go to an endowment to make sure that we continue, have the capacity to continue to work with our vets. Hugh, I told our military when I was president I was going to, you know, to use a military parlance, have their back. And now, I am, and I’m telling our vets I’m going to have their back for the remainder of my time. And although the platform has shrunk, I still have a platform. And I tend to lend my voice to programs that work, and to let the vets know there’s help available if they seek it.
HH: Mrs. Bush is quoted in the forward as saying about you had “I’ve seen George make good on his pledge to devote the rest of his life to helping them.” Is that the centerpiece now?
W: It’s, well, we’re doing a lot of good things at the Bush Center, by the way, but I have a particular passion for our veterans. You know, my orders caused them to go into combat, willingly to go into combat on their case, and so I feel a kinship. And the other thing is that as I hang around the vets, or when I painted them, I was continually inspired by courage, sacrifice, some of the great traits necessary to make, keep a country strong and optimistic.
HH: The book is called Portraits of Courage. I’m going to focus on six of the individual portraits, but first, I want to tell the story of you as a painter, because I kind of find it both interesting and amusing. The front piece in the book, and I’ve got the deluxe edition, is the deluxe edition available for anyone?
W: Oh, yeah.
HH: It’s a gorgeous deluxe edition.
W: Absolutely. Yeah, no, it’s available, and I think they’re selling pretty well so far, and I’m, again, all the money goes to help the vets.
HH: Yeah, it’s, it is well worth your investment. I brought a whole bunch of books for the President to sign this morning. I got the low end for my kids. I got the good one for myself.
W: Yeah, by the way, I don’t know if your listeners know this, but most of the people I sign books for are serving the country in one capacity or another.
HH: I’m not surprised. If you do book signings, I’ll be you’ll get an enormous number of vets. I’ve got to ask you, the other night, when Mrs. Owens stood up and received two minutes of heartfelt appreciation…
W: Yeah, yeah.
HH: Did you tear up, Mr. President?
W: I did a little bit, particularly, you know, I surfed on her emotions. She’s a mom of three. It seemed like to me that she was, you know, looking toward the sky, I would suspect, for two reasons. One, to know, she had a sense that her husband was watching, but also, I don’t know how devout she is, but it seemed like to me it was a, it was seeking, you know, help from a higher authority.
HH: I love that it was bipartisan and sustained, and I thought perhaps the country was talking not just to her, but to every wounded warrior and every Gold Star family.
W: Yeah, well, you know, I’m not surprised, Hugh, that there’s a unanimous response to our vets, because unlike the Vietnam period, where our vets were despicably treated, this is a period of time where regardless of whether or not somebody agreed with my decisions, and subsequent presidents’ decisions, there is unanimity in support of our vets. The question is can we do it effectively? Can we help them effectively?
HH: Yeah. Let’s go now to the painting. The front piece, you are in your studio. You’ve got one painting behind you. There are 11 faces, and it’s an interesting painting. Some are old, and some are very young.
HH: You’ve got all the stuff that goes with painting. I don’t know a thing, a lick about painting, but you’ve got two mixing trowels, you’ve got six tubes of paint, you’ve got one in your hand, you’ve got something being cleaned. Portrait of W. as an artist, where is that?
W: You mean the site where that is?
HH: The studio.
W: Upstairs in the house.
HH: In Crawford?
W: No, this is in Dallas. Now had that picture been taken in Crawford, you’d have seen the insides of another studio.
HH: Oh, so you’ve got two? Terrific.
W: Well, actually, I have three. I also built one at mother and dad’s place up in Maine, so when I go up there, I can, you know, be apart, be by myself and paint without spreading paint all throughout the house.
HH: I have to ask about your mother. You said that your first painting had burnt umber in it, and it reminded your mother, how did she like that?
W: Well, I love needling my mother, because she is one of the great needlers of all time. And I’m confident that once she reads that, I’ll hear from her, and she’ll have some retort.
HH: How are they doing after their illnesses?
W: Yeah, they’re doing great, thanks, Hugh.
W: You know, watching dad and mom go out to the 50 yard line during the Super Bowl was like magical.
HH: Yeah. So your toughest critics must be your siblings. I’m pretty tough on my brothers. How did they react to your painting abilities?
W: Well, after they’ve recovered from their shock, no one, I mean, the truth, no one in my family, and none of my friends would ever have suspected that I would take up painting. And you know, they’re proud. I mean, you know, I sent them all a book, and I’ve got emails from them thanking me. And I think it’s, you know, I think they really appreciate the spirit of the paintings in the book.
HH: So when you go up there, how long in your mind are you setting aside to actually go and work at a painting?
W: You know, it depends on my schedule, but a couple of hours is not, is pretty regular. And you know, I get up there and, like this was a project, and you know, I was pushing for an end to it, and you know, if I felt like I was falling behind, I spent a little more time painting. The thing about painting is you never finish a painting. I mean, there’s always something, at least in my case, there’s always something I could do to improve, and so at some point in time, you had to have the discipline to say I’m moving onto another portrait.
HH: There are 98 warriors in here, but as the book recounts, you didn’t begin with warriors. You began with landscapes. Actually, you began with a cube, am I correct?
W: That’s, (laughing), yes, my first instructor, I’ve had instructors. I continue to have instructors. I want to learn as much as I possibly can. Every stroke is a learning experience, and it helps to have somebody who’s done a lot of painting by your side to give you suggestions. And my first was a cube. Then I painted a watermelon, I think. And my mother, I told mom, I said I’m a painter. And she said I don’t think you can paint, son, and I said yeah, I can. And she said well, paint my pet, so I became a pet portrait painter for a while, and ultimately got to the point where you know, as one of my instructors said, you ought to paint the faces nobody knows.
HH: Those became the 98.
HH: In between were the world leaders that you worked with.
W: Right, and that’s an interesting lesson of instruction, at least the way I look at it. A really good artist came to my studio with my instructor, and he said you know, I think you can paint. You ought to try to paint the world leaders with whom you served. And it was such an uplifting statement, because what he was saying was seek new heights. Try something different. And you’ve got an area of expertise that no one can really do as an artist, and that is paint, you know, paint with feeling somebody you’ve gotten to know who happened to be a world leader. So I painted Putin, Blair, Dalai Lama, Angela Merkel, a bunch of them.
HH: Are these on display in the library?
W: They were, and they were on display in the context of personal diplomacy. I’m a big, I was trained by one of the, or I watched one of the great leaders, artisans of personal diplomacy. That would be my dad. And the underlying theme was I had gotten to know these leaders so well, I’d spent enough time with them that I felt comfortable painting them.
HH: There’s no reason you would remember this, but you had radio talk show hosts back twice to the Oval to talk with us. The first time, you were just concluding, you were late getting to us, and you were concluding a teleconference with Prime Minister Maliki.
HH: And you said to us in that meeting, off the record then, but I think I can say it to you since it was you…
HH: You spent a lot of time on teleconferences with the leaders of new democracies in an attempt to teach them how to do this. Did you paint Maliki?
W: Yeah, I did, and Karzai.
W: Both leaders who I, you know, toward the end, once a week, probably, or maybe once every two weeks, I’d be on a secure video. And I’d be asking them questions like well, you know, share with me why you made that decision, or how do you, you know, help me understand how you’re going to deal with this problem. The purpose of which was to just be a friend, and be available as they dealt with extraordinary difficulties as leaders of a new democracy. And I think, I know that is very important.
HH: The second time we came back was on the last Wednesday of your presidency, and you asked us to give the new guy a chance.
HH: It was kind of unusual. It was bracing. I’ve told that story a few times. Have you painted him or any of his predecessors, your predecessors? Have you painted your dad, any other presidents?
W: I’ve painted my dad quite a bit. And I painted a portrait of my dad and me from profile. And yeah, I mean, but I have painted none of my other, none of the other presidents.
HH: That would be interesting. I’d encourage you to do that.
W: Yeah, not a bad idea.
HH: Not a bad idea. That’s a good compliment.
W: By the way, I painted Laura.
HH: Peter Pace is, have you painted General Pace?
HH: One of the great men of our time, and…
W: I couldn’t agree more with you.
HH: I just think it was a tragedy he was not given the second term as chair, but he was a terrific chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In the forward, he says about you that no one could have asked for a better commander-in-chief. That’s got to make you feel pretty good.
W: Oh, sure, absolutely. I mean, it’s a high honor to hear that from somebody as, who has served our country so ably.
HH: On the other hand, he is a Marine. Did he say anything about your talent?
W: (laughing) He’s shocked, too.
HH: Okay. Let’s talk about these men. Oh, I want to talk about Churchill first. You got this idea from John Lewis Gaddis.
HH: …who had written a book about George Kennan.
HH: You have always been a huge reader. A lot of people don’t know about that. And Gaddis told you about the Churchill essay.
W: Yeah, Gaddis came by my office. You know, I got to know him when I was president, and said that, I would ask him about Kennan, and he said by the way, Decision Points, the first book I wrote, is part of my syllabus, and the students seem to like it, and they also love Winston Churchill’s essay, Painting As A Pastime. And I said wow, let me read that, because I studied Churchill a lot. And I read it and it peaked my interest in painting. Churchill was a very good painter, used painting as a way to deal with setbacks, starting in 1920 when he got booted out of office. I don’t think he, I think, I may be wrong on this, but I think he only painted one painting during World War II, which was in Casablanca after he got booted out of office. Few people remember that, by the way. The great leader got booted out. He painted again, a lot. And…
HH: Before victory over Japan, between victory over Hitler and before victory over Japan, they tossed him out.
W: Exactly, yeah.
HH: Yeah, it was…
W: Memories are short-lived.
HH: They are (laughing).
HH: You say in the preface you admire Churchill a lot. What is it that you admire about Winston Churchill?
W: Well, I admired his leadership qualities, for starters. Churchill was basically abandoned, or Britain was basically abandoned by the United States prior to World War II, and Hitler’s sieging London with these gigantic bombing raids, and Churchill had the indomitable will to, you know, lead the English people forward. He said we will not be defeated. And even though, you know, defeat looked pretty imminent at times. And I admired his humor. I admired his eloquence, something that I, had times, had trouble copying. You know, he’s just one of the most unique men that has ever led a democracy.
HH: Do you have a favorite biography of Winston Churchill? I am partial to Manchester’s, but I’m wondering…
W: Yeah, I love Manchester’s. You know, not really. I can’t remember, Hugh, right off the top of my head. Who was the famous guy in England who wrote the book on Churchill who I got to know?
HH: Martin Gilbert.
W: Yeah, liked it a lot.
HH: Sir Martin was pretty dry at times.
HH: But very comprehensive.
W: Very, and I got to know Martin. It’s why it made reading his book special.
HH: So back to Churchill on painting. I reread the essay in an attempt to be somewhat ready for this. And I did not recall, I read it long ago, that it begins by comparing a painting to a battlefield.
W: War, yeah.
HH: What do you think of that now?
W: Marshaling your forces. Well, you know, a painting requires a certain sense of strategy. And you know, I had a little trouble understanding what he was saying, but I do understand, you know, keeping paint in reserve. In other words, follow up with your initial design with, you know, maybe additional color or something to bring fullness to the painting.
HH: I have to switch glasses here, because I want to read the small print of the Churchill essay. He says that, “In battles, two things are usually required of the commander-in-chief – to make a good plan for his army, and secondly, to keep a strong reserve.”
HH: “Both of these are also obligatory upon the painter – to make a plan, do throughout reconnaissance of the country where the battle is to be fought as needed, its fields, its mountains, its rivers, its bridges, its trees, its flowers, its atmosphere. All require and repay attentive observation.” Are you a better observer of all detail in your life having become a painter?
W: No question. No question. So I was asked this question last night at the Reagan Library, and here’s the example I used. I went on the Ellen Degeneres show to, you know, raise awareness for this book, and I looked into her eyes. She’s got, you know, really cerulean blue eyes, beautiful eyes. And I said, you know, I can mix that color.
HH: You know, there’s the name of a color in here that I couldn’t even pronounce. It’s a kind of blue. One of your…how do you…
HH: How do you say that?
HH: So there’s a word that the President knows that I don’t. Phtalo blue?
W: Yeah, and it’s a very rich blue. And a lot of artists will tell you be careful of using phtalo, because a little bit of it goes a long way. But it’s the only blue I use, and my instructor, Jim Woodson has convinced me that if you use phtalo, you can mix it with all different colors to create different types of blue. And so…
HH: Did you have any idea of the technical side of painting when you began?
W: No, no. None at all.
HH: And of the learning curve that you’re on regarding painting, if you continue this, how much farther up the hill do you have to go? Or are you at the technic level?
W: Yeah, a long way. I don’t think it ever, I don’t think the quest to develop a style that you can express yourself as fully as you want ever ends.
HH: And when you paint angry, and when you paint happy, are they different paintings?
W: Generally don’t paint angry, because it’s a happy experience. As a matter of fact, if angry, painting at least makes me happy.
HH: Okay. That was what Churchill said when depressed, he wouldn’t say he was depressed, but when lonely or disappointed, he would repair to his easel.
W: Yeah, well, he was a little bit, it turns out, after being booted out of the Lord of the Admiralty.
W: And I’m confident that having, you know, been tossed aside after World War II, after his heroic efforts, it had to have affected him deeply.
HH: Of course. There is one more quote from his essay I want to read to the people out there. “There really is no time for the deliberate approach,” Churchill wrote. “Two years of drawing lessons, three years of copying wood cuts, five years of plaster cast. These are for the young. They have enough to bear. We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joyride in a paint box. And for this, audacity is the only ticket.”
W: Yeah, he’s right. You know, a lot of people will say, and they’re right, that you’ve got to learn to sketch before you paint. And I just short-circuited that process. In other words, if I were looking at you, I wouldn’t do a very good job of sketching your face. But if I have a photograph in front of me, and able to spend a lot of time on it, I’d be able to get your likeness pretty well.
HH: Now the 98 warriors, now we’re to the heart of the book, Portraits of Courage. How did they react collectively? There’s got to be a list from the one who’s happiest to the one who’s least happy. I’m not going to ask who the least happy is, but who says you nailed it, President Bush?
W: Well, I’ve yet to run into the least happiest. Now I fully understand that these vets, who are my friends, are the least likely people to say I think you could have done a better job on me.
HH: You know, well, they might. They’re warriors.
W: Well, last night, I was with Bryan Fromm. He’s on the big collage, and his mom. And I said Ms. Fromm, have you looked at Bryan’s painting, and she said yes. And of all people who would be honest, it would be the mother, of course. And she said I liked it a lot, which made me feel good.
HH: That’s high praise. The very first portrait, and then I’m going to pick the six that I focused in on.
HH: …is of Chris Self…
HH: …who deployed in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq six times, Mr. President, two times after his leg was amputated. The stories in these books, in this book, are just incredible. And I don’t know that many Americans actually know about the repeat deployments, and the spouses who did not deploy with them but who were taking care of the family in their absence.
W: Yeah, yeah. See, that’s part of the story, to talk about courage and sacrifice, and what these troops went through, the purpose of which I want to repeat, and then we’ll talk about Chris in specific, and that is to help them transition, because the characteristics they display in the military are the kind of characteristics we want to help lead this country in the out years. So Chris, I ran into him in Bamsey in San Antonio, which is where a lot of the amputees go for help, and he’s getting a prosthetic fit for his leg. And he said I’m a mountain biker. I said you are? I said man, I love to ride mountain bikes. Why don’t you and your wife come to the ranch? I mean, it was just an instant blurt. He said I’m on. And two days later, he brings his wife up to the ranch, and we ride mountain bikes. And it was a fabulous experience, and this guy can ride. I mean, I’m okay. You know, I’m a little older. But you know, we’ve got pretty taxing trails, and I’m fit, and Chris was right on my back tire the whole way, so I decided that I was going to do this on a more formal basis, invite as many vets down as we could, and you know, start getting to know them. And out of this biking experience involved a great friendship, a network amongst vets who hadn’t known each other, and this initiative to help our vets.
HH: You know, Mr. President, I’ve got a friend, Jan Janura, who hosted a dozen of them to go fly fishing.
HH: One of your portraits, and I don’t know that enough civilians feel comfortable extending this offer of friendship to wounded warriors. What would you say to the civilian who’s thinking about it?
W: Well, I’d say if you’re thinking about doing this, it’s a good idea. But make sure it’s a meaningful experience. I mean, just don’t bring some vets around, you know, because you feel sorry for them. And make it the kind of experience where a vet can, you know, help get on his or her feet. You know, part of the problem is there’s a civilian-military divide in our country. 80% of the civilians, or I forgot the number, but it’s high 70s, if not 80, you know, don’t understand vets, and vets certainly don’t understand the civilian world. And so therefore, you’ve got to be mindful of that if you try to help. The other thing that’s a little precarious is somebody who doesn’t really understand PTS trying to help a vet with PTS, because you know, that vet will shy way, that vet will likely become more stigmatized. The best way to, if you want to help a vet, is to support these groups that have peer to peer counseling.
HH: …which is growing bigger and bigger. By the way, how happy are you that General Mattis is running the Department of Defense?
W: Very. And by the way, I knew H. R. McMaster, who was one of the architects of the surge. I mean, to the extent there was, you know, somebody called an architect, but he was one of the intellectual forces behind the counterinsurgency strategy that ended up working and defeating the former iteration of ISIS.
HH: The former iteration. They’re back.
HH: And hopefully, they’ll be defeated again. But that civilian-military divide, I think Portraits of Courage may help bridge that by giving people glimpses into their lives, not just the paintings.
W: Yeah, right.
HH: It’s their biographies.
W: Well, the stories are more important than the paintings.
W: The paintings draw attention to the stories.
HH: That’s exactly where I’m, you’re anticipating my interview, Mr. President. That’s not courteous.
HH: I went through and picked memorable faces, and for different reasons. One face, who would I not want to face in a fight, Kent Solheim.
W: Yeah, yeah.
HH: Holy smokes. He runs the Gold Star Teen Adventures. He just took command of the elite 3rd Battalion, 3D special group Airborne. He’s had 34 surgeries.
W: Yeah, Captain America. That’s what they call him, because he’s such a handsome looking guy. I tried to capture, you know, his kind of movie star qualities.
HH: He does.
W: And yeah, he’s a wonderful guy, yeah.
HH: And where did, how often do you get to see someone like…
W: I’ve seen Solheim probably twice. Since he’s still on active duty, it’s hard to get him down to some of our alumni rides and stuff. I ran into him in New York City when we announced the initiatives that we’re doing at the Bush Center. He kindly came over to be a part of the announcement.
HH: So many of the stories also will be eye opening for civilians, because even though they lose one and two of their limbs, they want to stay on active duty and they go back to the battle.
W: Yeah, absolutely. It’s amazing. I mean, I was amazed. And therefore, it affected my painting.
HH: The most inspiring of, they’re all inspiring stories…
HH: …so I hate to single one out, but I want to talk about D.T., Israel del Toro, Jr.
HH: …who was so badly wounded, he did not want to scare his son.
HH: And he was the only man to return to duty 100% disabled. Tell me about D.T.
W: D.T. got blown up badly. I went to see him in the hospital. He was in a coma. His wife was there. I hugged her. I commiserated with her. I don’t know what she felt. I felt I’d never ever get to talk to D.T. I saw him again. I think he was at, I know he was at the White House for my last speech as president. I invited D.T. And you know, he’s getting a lot better. I’ve run into him at the Invictus Games. I mean, this guy is full of spirit at this point in time. And the story is very, very inspiring, because he basically vowed that he would be there to raise his child. And D.T. tells the story, which he did again with me the other day, about he was so scared to see his son, because he was frightened that he would frighten his son. And his son came in and gave him a big hug, and he said daddy, or something along those lines. And D.T. had a tear in his eyes when he was telling it. Of course, everybody listening had a tear in their eyes. And the guy’s a remarkable guy. And he is, he is funny, he’s full of life, and he talks about his injuries and recovery in a compelling way.
HH: So when you have them sit for you to paint, and they’re…
W: They didn’t sit. I just did photos.
HH: You did photos.
HH: Does anyone, have you done a portrait in sotto then? Has anyone sat down for you and done that with the veterans?
W: Or anybody else.
HH: Why is that a choice?
W: Well, first of all, they can’t stay long enough. I mean, what you don’t want to do is start a painting with somebody, and the person has to say look, I’ve got to go back to duty or I’ve got a job, or I’ve got to do something. And you know, there’s just not enough time to make sure the process works. Now you know, it may make sense at some point in time.
HH: So you get a couple of portraits of them. And then how often do you start, stop and start over with a different color palette?
W: All the time. All the time. In other words, I would paint a person, start on another one, start on another one, go upstairs in my studio, look at the one I started first, and say wait a minute, that’s not right, and go back. It’s a learning, every, again, I repeat, every brush stroke, at least for me, is a learning experience. And as I got better painting, I would go back and improve some of the paintings. But as I say, there are some in there that I wish I could, you know, now that I’ve seen them in the book, there’s just some blending I would do differently.
HH: Let me talk next about Lt. Col. Kenneth Michael Dwyer, who is painted in blues and whites.
W: (laughing) Yeah.
HH: It’s very different from your other portraits, I thought.
HH: I notice in the painting right away he was missing his left eye. So I read his story after I looked at and saw an RPG had taken out his eye as well as his trachea and arm. 70 days, he couldn’t see his son. His son came in, said it’s all better now, daddy, let’s play baseball.
HH: So he started watching videos of Jim Abbott. It’s a great story.
W: It is a great story. Dwyer is a very funny guy. First of all, the painting has got a lot of paint on it. And, which I think conveys a sense of confidence in painting. The first ones I painted, the world leaders, it was real tight brush strokes. You know, I was trying to get it exact. And these are much looser. I think it’s a tribute to my instructors, and a tribute to time at easel. And Dwyer’s has got a lot of paint on it. And I’m happy with the painting. He’s kind of a fair-skinned guy to begin with…
W: But Dwyer has got a huge sense of humor. By the way, he’s back on active duty.
HH: Yes, that’s in my notes here. It’s incredible how many of these guys, he’s a lieutenant colonel of special warfare training at Fort Bragg, I believe.
W: Yeah, he’s great. This guy’s a warrior. So Dwyer goes to his son’s Little League game, or youth baseball game. And the umpire makes a bad call, and he takes out his prosthetic eye and hands it to the ump and says you could use this.
HH: (laughing) Duane, who’s sitting here, is a baseball, Little League umpire. He’s gone to Cooperstown all the time. That’s what he likes to do for, he could borrow that eye, too.
HH: He could do that.
HH: (laughing) I wish I had that on video. Corporal Dave Smith, what struck me here is a white T-shirt.
HH: And then the story…
HH: He shot a fellow Marine by accident, of course.
HH: So he had to rebuild with Christ, with his comrades, and with Katrine. And so tell people about this, because you heard him talking about this.
W: Yeah, he stood up. So at these events we do, whether it be golf or mountain biking, the new vets that we’ve invited, not the alumni, but the new ones, step up and tell their story. It’s part of the healing process to, you know, if somebody’s got a stigma, you’ll be able to sense it a little bit when they’re hesitant to talk about what they’re dealing with. Smith stands up and says I had a shotgun in my mouth, and thankfully, I mean, he was so despondent that he was ready to kill himself. And what made that even more compelling is his mom was in the audience. And then he talks about how he wakes up the next day and realizes that you know, he needed to get a grip on life, starts riding mountain bikes, starts coming to terms with his, dealing with the stigma, knowing he needs help, proving that step one of any recovery is the desire that you want to get better. And today, Dave is running, helping, participating in a non-governmental organization. He’s engaged to be married in Finland, and I get letters from Dave a lot. And he is a remarkable guy.
HH: Now why the white T-shirt? I mean, this is just an aesthetic thing. I looked at these at different, you did these guys in different places at different times. Is it just the pictures they sent you?
W: Well, that and plus, you know, I thought it kind of made an interesting pattern.
HH: It did.
W: The purples on the whites, and what also is different in a lot of these paintings is the backgrounds are different. So my instructors are very conscious about what they call negative space, and made me more conscious of it. That’s just as big a part of the paintings, in some ways, as the figure itself. And Dave’s is kind of a vague outline of a tower at Cal Berkeley…
HH: I didn’t notice that.
W: …where as part of, yeah, he went back and you know, he was making pretty good grades.
HH: I’ll jump ahead. One of the backgrounds I noticed the most is Sergeant Saul Martinez on Page 123. He’s got this beautiful follow through on a drive on his prosthetic leg.
HH: It’s blues, greens and blacks, but there are four men behind him.
HH: What is that?
W: Well, these were people watching him drive, one of whom is kind of me in a way, kind of a vague outline.
HH: I thought…
W: And I painted the background in that painting with really light, you know, oil.
HH: You can hardly see a thing, yeah.
W: So it’s almost like a water color. And it was just an experimental approach to see what that would look like compared to, you know, fairly thick on Saul, and it worked.
HH: When you have an action painting, that’s a follow through on a drive, which is a lot of action, as opposed to someone sitting there or a portrait. How much more difficult, degree of difficulty?
W: Yeah, it’s, you know, at first, it was a little difficult, but then I painted and painted and painted, and a lot of it has to do with the folds in the pants or the shirt. You can convey a sense of turning by the patterns you put on somebody’s clothes.
HH: Huh. I hadn’t thought about that. He, why blues and greens and blacks? He had lost both legs, his wife, I love this story, his wife told him to vacuum the house.
W: Yeah, he said I can’t. And he did.
HH: She said figure it out.
W: Yeah, the point is the wives are incredibly important for recovery. I don’t know, just, you know, again, there’s a lot of different, you know, approaches to these vets that I tried, and you know, I haven’t even really thought about why.
HH: The last one I want to talk to you about specifically, and I don’t want to press too much of your time. You’re busy, and Portraits of Courage needs as much promotion as possible, and people, we have it listed at Hughhewitt.com. They can go pick it up there and every bookstore in America, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, number one on Amazon.
HH: Bob Barnett calls me up and tells me that whenever he’s…
HH: …he wants me to know that, is Staff Sergeant Andrew Hillstrom, and let me tell you why, on Page 169.
HH: He’s holding his child.
HH: And his wife wrote you of the pain he had experienced, physical pain of picking up his child. You don’t have many of the vets with their kids, but the ones stand out.
HH: Why some and not the others?
W: You know, it’s a good question. First of all, I had a good, Andrew was so proud to hold his child, and the photo that I painted off of showed a really beaming father.
W: And a, you know, cute, little kid, you know, in his daddy’s arms. You’ll notice I didn’t paint a lot of wives.
W: I put Rocky Rodriguez in there with Marcela, and you know, I thought a painting would be a way to say the wives are really important, and the children are really important. And family is really important to the recovery. And most of these vets you talk to will tell you that their families helped in their recovery. And so yeah, Andrew, by the way, I don’t know if he passed the test. I’m not sure exactly what his status is now, but he’s going to, I think, going to work for the State Department.
HH: Now you mentioned family and parents, children, wives. A lot of these men are religious.
HH: And what is the degree of correlation there, do you think, between recovery and faith?
W: You know, I think initially, well, first of all, faith will help a vet determine whether or not they want to live on, whether or not they want to, you know, fight off the urge to self-medicate, whether they want to seek help. The most important way to help a vet help themselves is for another vet to help them and console them, because you know, I’m now speculating, but PTS has got such a dark place to it that it’s, there needs to be a starting, a guiding hand of a former vet or a vet to help start the process of healing. I’m confident faith helps a lot. But it requires more than just faith to help these vets.
HH: Now I want to wrap up by asking you a couple of questions, Mr. President, about you. First of all, are the grandkids allowed in the studio?
W: (laughing) Well, as a matter of fact, one of my favorite memories of this past Christmas was little Mila coming into the studio at Crawford, and we bought here a little, tiny easel, and she got to just scrawl all over it. And so I love painting with her.
HH: And so I tell people grandchildren are the only thing in life that isn’t overrated.
W: I agree.
HH: How is your experience?
W: I’m with you. It’s been a fantastic experience.
HH: And so what is ahead for you? You’re a very young man for being, what are you, 69?
HH: 70. You’re 70, so you’re 10 years ahead of me? What is ahead for you? You know, your dad’s so far out there, I don’t see you flipping the Super Bowl thing. I don’t think they’re going to invite you to the Super Bowl in Dallas here.
W: No, no. You know, the painting is ahead of me for sure. It’s one of the great learning experiences, Hugh. It’s, you know, I think about it all the time. When I get back this weekend, I’ll paint. And I’m looking for a new project. Sadly, as a result of all this publicity, I’ve had to turn a lot of people down. You know, paint something for this charity, paint something for that, and I’m not going to get into that. But you know, I’ll come up with another idea, and I’ll get after it.
HH: Churchill’s paintings toured. I saw them at the castle in the Smithsonian. Have you had yours tour, yet, of the world leaders?
W: No. No, well, not yet. And I’m not, you know, I’m a better painter now than I was then, I think, and I’d much rather these tour. And you know, I’m not, we’re in the process of, well, we’re just rolling it out, and we’ll see how it goes. But you know, I think one way to draw awareness to our vets, and to draw awareness to the programs we’re doing, is to maybe tour some of these paintings.
HH: I agree with that. Last question is about Mrs. Bush. Everybody loves her. It’s got to be, when you marry up like that, it’s got to be hard to always have people tell you how much, have you painted your wife?
W: Hugh, it was an unpleasant experience.
HH: (laughing) Tell me about it.
W: Well, I painted a painting I thought was pretty good. And she didn’t. Yeah, yeah, she says you know, I think you need to change, you know, I look too anguished or something, and so I tried to make it less anguished. And that didn’t work. Now let’s do this. And so I tried to make it less that. And eventually, I just said forget it and put it aside and moved on, which is not unusual for painters. You know, you paint something and you go back and look at it, and say I don’t like it and you just, you know, either store for, you know, look at it ten years later or just tear it up.
HH: How about your girls, you sons-in-law, and your grandchildren?
W: Yeah, I painted them. I painted a great painting, I think, of Henry and Mila standing on the beach. I painted the back of them with father holding the hand of the daughter, and it’s, to me, it symbolizes the beauty of father-daughter relationship. And so I painted that, and but not really, you know?
HH: And siblings?
W: I painted Marvin, Big Marv, one of my little brothers.
HH: Little brother, yeah.
W: Yeah, he’s…
HH: But you haven’t done Doro Bush, yet?
W: No. You know, I’m a little gun shy on women now, although I’m happy with my painting of Leslie Zimmerman and Melissa Stockwell in the book.
HH: Well, Mr. President, we’ve taken all of our time. Congratulations on Portraits of Courage. I hope it sells and sells and sells, and that there’s a second edition ahead.
W: Hugh, thank you, and I just want to say one final thing. If you’re a vet out there looking for help, one place to find it is to go to www.bushcenter.org, and go to either the roadmap for employment or the wellness initiative.
HH: What gets them to do that? What’s the spark that will get people to pick up the phone and say something’s not right with my recovery, or I’m just in a bad place?
W: When they hear somebody like me say it’s courageous to seek help, and or more importantly, when they hear a fellow vet say this is what helped me, it’s courageous to seek help. And when you look in that book, you’ll, there’s quite a few that are involved with these recovery programs, or transition programs. The military does a good job of keeping some of them on active duty to help others transition. And you know, I am, and I’ve seen enormous progress, by the way, from the vets I painted. I mean, some of them in there have, as you can testify, are pretty, have got pretty grim looks on their face.
HH: You bet.
W: And I was with a guy the other day, and I said you know, I looked at him and talked to him, and I said if I had to paint you again, I’d paint you less troubled.
HH: That’s a high compliment. www.bushcenter.org.
W: Yes, sir.
HH: Thank you, Mr. President.
W: Hugh, thank you.
End of interview.