George W Bush enjoys something of a renaissance as his party tears itself apart

America Letter: Bush jnr’s new book about immigrants is his latest rehabilitation effort

Former US president George W Bush: Described his position as “border enforcement with a compassionate touch”.Photograph: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

Former US president George W Bush: Described his position as “border enforcement with a compassionate touch”.Photograph: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

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Within months of Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in November 2016, a new T-shirt began to appear at vendor stalls across America.

“Miss me yet?” it read, illustrated by a smiling picture of George W Bush.

Trump’s presidency may have upended the norms of US politics, but it also had unintended consequences – including the rehabilitation of George W Bush.

For many Bush jnr had epitomised all that was wrong with the Republican party as he led America into disastrous and, to many minds, illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But as Trump arrived on the political scene, Bush’s verbal gaffes and much-ridiculed grin paled in comparison with the language, insults and erratic decisions emanating from the White House.

Like many US presidents, Bush’s public profile improved after he left Washington. In keeping with tradition he rarely intervened on political issues.

An unlikely friendship with Michelle Obama no doubt helped his image. In 2016 he was pictured in a warm embrace with the first lady. Two years later Bush was caught on camera surreptitiously passing a cough sweet to Michelle Obama at John McCain’s funeral. She subsequently described Bush as a “wonderful” and “funny” man.

The death of George HW Bush in 2018 also served to bolster the standing of the Bushes, as the country contrasted the reign of previous Republican presidents with the chaos of the Trump presidency. “He looked for the good in each person, and he usually found it,” George W said of his father at his funeral in Washington National Cathedral, as Donald Trump looked on dourly.

Portraits

Bush jnr’s rehabilitation has continued with the publication of a new book by the former president. Out of Many, One: portraits of America’s Immigrants is a collection of portraits of 43 immigrants who have made the United States home.

Bush, an amateur artist, has painted each of the individuals, their portraits accompanied by a short text telling their story. They range from well-known names like Madeleine Albright, the former Democratic secretary of state who was born in Czechoslovakia and Austrian-born former governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to lesser known figures.

These include Philip Alier Marchok, a Sudanese refugee who came to the US in 2001, and Paula Rendon, a Mexican immigrant who helped raise the Bush children in Texas. Also featured is Northern Ireland former golfer and current broadcaster David Feherty.

The aim of the book, according to the former president, is to reveal “the humanity behind one of our most pressing policy issues and the countless ways in which America, through its tradition of welcoming newcomers, has been strengthened by those who have come here in search of a better life”.

The ex-president is making his strident interventions as a member of another political dynasty close to the Bushes is coming under attack

The notion that Bush would wade into such a contentious issue as immigration is not as subversive as it may seem. During his political career Bush successfully reached out to the Hispanic community, correctly assuming that the Republican party needed to make inroads with Latino voters in the rapidly-diversifying state of Texas if it wanted to have a political future.

In recent media appearances to promote his book, Bush has been asked to weigh in on the current state of the Republican party. In an interview with NBC’s Today show last month, he described the party in its current guise as “isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist” – his strongest criticism of his own party since leaving office.

He urged Republicans to tone down the rhetoric on immigration, describing his position as “border enforcement with a compassionate touch”.

Political dynasty

The former president is making his most strident political interventions as a member of another political dynasty close to the Bushes is coming under attack. This week saw the purging of Liz Cheney from her leadership role in Congress.

As the daughter of Dick Cheney, who served as vice-president under Bush, she has been a passionate defender of her father’s foreign policy decisions and espouses the closest thing to a Bush doctrine in the current Republican party. That neo-conversion of Republicanism seems to be on the way out, as the party digs into its anti-interventionist, nativist Trump credentials.

Nonetheless, while Bush is enjoying something of a renaissance as his party tears itself apart, it’s not all plain sailing. A new Slow Burn podcast is re-examining the events that led up to the ill-fated invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush.

The 43rd US president’s new book may be topping the New York Times bestseller list, but his role in starting America’s endless wars will never truly be forgotten.

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