At the moment, there are six living former or current presidents of the United States on the planet. A record number, but not unprecedented. The last time there were six people alive who answered to the title “Mr. President” was in the three-and-a-half years between the inauguration of George W. Bush, in 2001, and the death of Ronald Reagan.
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Six is a fine number, but it won’t last long. Who will return the complement of presidents to five? The leading competitors would seem to be Jimmy Carter and the elder George Bush, both born in the same year, 1924. Still, the possibility can’t be ruled out that Bill Clinton, two months younger than Donald Trump and looking like his frail uncle, will bypass them and demonstrate that his vegan diet was futile.
Carter, who’s been retired for 36 years, doesn’t miss an inauguration, funeral or presidential-library dedication. He always shows up with his big smile and takes a place in the small gallery of the other exes. His is the smile of one who knows that none of the others can stand him, nor he them. A large, pasted-on smile of someone who defeated cancer at the age of 91 and intends to be around for a few more inaugurations.
The elder Bush almost left us. He missed the Trump inauguration last month because he and his wife, Barbara, were both hospitalized (pneumonia for him; bronchitis for her). It almost seemed as if they preferred to die rather than see Trump take the oath of office, but two weeks later they took to the field at the Super Bowl for the coin toss, he in a wheelchair, she in a golf cart.
Bush 41 underwent an interesting metamorphosis in his retirement years. In contrast to his conservative, rigid, cold, humorless presidency, he’s become a sweet, joking, conceptually flexible – almost permissive – fellow, known for his collection of colorful socks. He’s even become a good friend of his retired, once-despised rival, Clinton. In contrast, his son (Bush 43), is undergoing a somewhat less conciliatory time since leaving the White House.
Exactly four years ago, the world found out the answer to the question that no one ever bothered to ask: What is George W. Bush doing now? Answer: painting. In the wake of a hack of his sister’s email account, we discovered the former president’s painting hobby, and the jokes came pouring out. Self-portraits in the bathtub; an homage to his dog, Barney; a series of works featuring world leaders (Olmert on canvas!) – all done in a nave style with limited technique, signed “43” as though to prove what we'd thought about him all along: The man is an idiot. But even that idiot has a heart, and in recent years his artistic career has taken on a harrowing aspect.
It turns out that Bush is devoting his time to painting portraits of soldiers who fought and were wounded while he was commander-in-chief. Imagine a person who found himself in the Oval Office at quite an early age, with friends of his father buzzing around him and whispering in his ear, not to mention moving him like a marionette. The man, whether due to malice or stupidity, brought about the deaths of many tens of thousands of people and the destabilization of the world he was given in custody. And what does he do after retiring? Spends hours in his studio painting the faces of men and women who risked their lives and were wounded executing his mission. They’re strong portraits, done in an enhanced technique, in bold colors that he didn’t allow himself to squeeze out of the tube in his first, hesitant period, when he portrayed Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin in solid shades.
What goes through the mind of a man who comes to understand that the people he sent to be killed may have died in vain? Only the paintings can say. Everyone who experiences such a realization responds differently. There are leaders who wipe their conscience like tahini from their lips, and some who go to sleep at night with a lead bullet in the throat and wake up with it in the morning.
A Jerusalem friend told me once that he was friendly in school with Menachem Begin’s grandson. This was in the 1980s – after Begin was crushed by the casualties of his war and the death of his wife, and left office saying, “I can’t go on anymore.” One day, my friend and his pal went to Grandpa’s house and watched “Gremlins.” Together with Grandpa. I try to picture the aged Begin, haunted by the ghosts of the dead on the streets of Beirut and on the Beaufort, sitting with two kids and watching “Gremlins.” Those cute creatures become demons if they’re fed after midnight.
Barack Obama’s hands were not completely clean of blood when his presidency ended, certainly less clean than his image would have it. He spent his first days out of office on the island of the flamboyant tycoon Richard Branson, practicing kitesurfing. The photos of them together, romping about like two college boys – and Obama with a huge smile of one from whose shoulders the burden of the world, in the most literal way, has fallen – immediately generated feelings of love and yearning. The boy who was born in Hawaii (if we believe that account) had returned to the beach. And all this while an overgrown boy, grumpy and pampered, inhabits the Oval Office.
Still, there was something troubling about those vacation snaps. Not the fact that Obama is cozying up to a billionaire while America copes with poverty, racism and the buds of fascism (in the assessment of a few grim-faced leftists). What was upsetting took the form of two surprises that emerged from the two sides of Obama. Something new that we hadn’t known from the thousands of shots released by the White House photographer during the president’s eight years in office. The presidential armpits. Dark, dense, damp from the ocean water. No, there’s no reason on earth for us to see the armpits of a president. Incumbent or retired.