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Painting tops politics for retired president

George W. Bush is a man who ‘relishes life’

Former President George W. Bush and President Obama at the US Embassy in Tanzania in July.

Doug Mills/New York Times/File

Former President George W. Bush and President Obama at the US Embassy in Tanzania in July.

DALLAS — When the executive director of former President George W. Bush’s public policy institute decided to move on recently, he stopped by for an exit interview. Bush asked if he had anything in particular he wanted to talk about.

Nothing specific, said James K. Glassman, the departing director.

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“OK,” Bush replied, “I want to talk about painting.”

After early self-portraits and then dozens of paintings of dogs and cats, Bush, it seems, has now moved on to world leaders. He told Glassman that he wants to produce portraits of 19 foreign presidents and prime ministers he worked with during his time in the White House.

Nearly five years after leaving office, the nation’s 43d president lives a life of self-imposed exile in Texas, more interested in painting than politics, recovering from a heart scare, privately worried about the rise of the Tea Party, golfing with fervor, bicycling with wounded veterans, and enjoying a modest revival in public opinion.

That his voice remains silent may be all the more striking given how much he seems at the center of the debate anyway. Some of the issues dominating Washington trace their roots to his time in power — including whether to use force to counter weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and finding the right balance between security and privacy when it comes to the surveillance state.

When President Obama’s health care rollout was botched, some looked to Bush’s expansion of Medicare for lessons. When Obama vowed to fix it, he promised a “tech surge,” emulating the language of Bush’s second-term troop buildup in Iraq. And when Obama pushes lawmakers to overhaul the immigration system, he makes a point of noting that his predecessor supported it too.

But Bush seems to miss none of it. “He’s moved on,” said Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, who has been interviewing him for a book on the two Bush presidents.

Bush is not completely removed from public policy. His institute promotes free-market economics, global health, democratic reform, and other causes. He travels to Africa as part of a program fighting cervical cancer. He broke his silence recently to advocate immigration legislation, in effect bolstering Obama.

His main passions these days, though, are elsewhere.

Bush, who is 67, has a regular seat near the dugout at Texas Rangers games and gave the coin toss at a recent Southern Methodist University football game.

“I would sum it up as library work, speeches, painting, golfing, and mountain bike riding,” said Mark McKinnon, a friend and former consultant. “The most consistent characteristic about President Bush is that he truly loves and relishes life.”

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