NEW YORK — Former president George W. Bush says he didn’t intend to criticize President Trump when he said recently that a free press is essential to democracy
Speaking by telephone Tuesday with the Associated Press, Bush said he was simply responding to a reporter’s question about the role of journalism. Trump has referred to the press as the ‘‘enemy of the people,’’ but Bush said that it’s important to hold those in power ‘‘to account,’’ adding that power can be ‘‘very corrupting’’ and that it was dangerous to ‘‘fall in love’’ with power or fame or money.
He called his own relationship with the media ‘‘symbiotic,’’ with the media needing a story and the president needing to get his message out.
‘‘I understood people were trying to do their job,’’ he said. ‘‘There were moments when I (was) irritated and wanted to tell so-and-so that they missed a story. But I don’t look back and say, ‘This was a terrible part of my presidency.’ ’’
Bush, 70, is promoting his new book, ‘‘Portraits of Courage,’’ a volume of his paintings of military veterans. The book, officially published Tuesday and No. 1 on Amazon.com, arrives at a time when Bush — highly unpopular when he left office in 2009 — is enjoying favorable attention from both Democrats and Republicans for views on the media, immigration, and Muslims that are far more moderate than those of Trump.
But the former president, who refrained from commenting on Democrat Barack Obama’s administration, said he intends to do the same with fellow Republican Trump.
‘‘I understand people interpreting my remarks,’’ he says, ‘‘and that’s why I don’t give a lot of remarks.’’
These days, he is happy to paint, and to talk about painting and the veterans he has befriended. As he wrote in the introduction to ‘‘Portraits of Courage,’’ he first thought of taking up painting when the historian John Lewis Gaddis told him in 2012 about an essay by Winston Churchill called ‘‘Painting as a Pastime.’’ Bush, acknowledging that he does get ‘‘antsy,’’ figured painting would be something he ‘‘would benefit’’ from.
The book features 66 portraits and a four-panel mural of veterans he has come to know over the years, with each picture accompanied by a brief essay by Bush. ‘‘Portraits of Courage’’ is not political, although Bush notes one veteran’s story resonates with current events. Juan Carlos Hernandez, a former Army specialist who lost his leg while serving in Afghanistan, is a Mexican immigrant who illegally crossed the border.
‘‘Surely people will understand that if someone who is not a citizen is willing to serve our country, we would want to call that person a citizen,’’ he said.
Once he’s done promoting ‘‘Portraits of Courage,’’ Bush said he looks forward to resuming a quiet post-presidential life. He said that his parents, former president George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, are doing ‘‘remarkably well’’ after some recent health scares. He stays in touch with numerous former administration officials, from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to former chief of staff Josh Bolten. He paints, and he devotes time to the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Bush follows current politics, but not obsessively, saying he likes to get his news and ‘‘move on.’’ He said he wasn’t sure whether he would watch Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, reasoning that he could get ‘‘plenty of information’’ about it later. He also acknowledged that only during the 2016 election had he heard of Breitbart News, the far-right media outlet that gained prominence from Trump’s rise.
‘‘We sensitive artists are consumed in our art,’’ he said with a laugh.