(CBS) – Springtime in central Texas doesn’t get any better than this: The bluebonnets are in bloom across the 1,600 acres of Prairie Chapel Ranch, south of Dallas – a retreat for former President and first lady George W. and Laura Bush, where they once entertained world leaders.
“Well, this is just about heaven out here,” said “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell.
“Yeah, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Mr. Bush said. “You know, we got unbelievably interesting views and beautiful trees. Some of these have been out here 200 years.”
And though Bush has stepped back from the world stage, his trademark strut and salty humor are as strong as ever.
“It’s like these interviews I used to do and they’d call in from New York: ‘Ask the son-of-a-b**** about when he stopped – ‘”
“Darling, they’re taping you,” Laura helpfully interjected.
The former president gave O’Donnell a tour of his tree farm (“Yeah, baby. We’re sellin’ trees!”), and while Mr. Bush did take out one of our GoPro cameras attached to our vehicle, he has a valid excuse: “I have not driven a car on a road since 1993 – before you were born!”
The occasion for our visit to “Studio 43” is the release of a new book of Bush’s oil paintings: “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants” (Crown).
His subjects range from the famous, to the not-so-famous. They are all equally celebrated by this 74-year-old commander in chief-turned-artist.
O’Donnell asked Laura Bush, “When your husband started painting, what did you think?”
“I was shocked,” she replied. “He hadn’t even ever looked at art. I mean, we lived with a major American collection at the White House.”
“And he expressed no interest then?”
“No, he was not at all interested.”
When asked what led him to painting, Mr. Bush replied, “You know, in retrospect, it was longing for learning. The presidency is a great learning experience. And then all of a sudden you’re not president. And by chance I read Winston Churchill’s essay, ‘Painting as a Pastime.’ And it got me thinking about painting. And in essence, I said, ‘If that old boy can paint, I can paint.’ And so I started.”
The paintings themselves are much more than art: they are a timely message to Washington.
O’Donnell asked, “Do you want to be involved in the immigration discussion?”
“Yeah, I do, in a way, in a way,” he said. “I don’t want to be prescriptive. I don’t want to, you know, tell Congress how to do this or that. I do want to say to Congress, ‘Please put aside all the harsh rhetoric about immigration. Please put aside trying to score political points on either side.’ I hope I can help set a tone that is more respectful about the immigrant, which may lead to reform of the system.”
On May 15, 2006, President Bush gave an Oval Office address on immigration, in which he said:
“We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We are also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals – America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”
“It’s been 15 years,” said O’Donnell.
“I know it.”
“Still nothing’s been done.”
“No, a lot of executive orders, but all that means is that Congress isn’t doing its job,” Mr. Bush said.
“Is it one of the biggest disappointments of your presidency, not being – “
“Yes, it really is,” Mr. Bush said. “I campaigned on immigration reform. I made it abundantly clear to voters this is something I intended to do.”
Despite bipartisan backing, reform failed during Mr. Bush’s tenure. Years later, Donald Trump made anti-immigrant rhetoric a centerpiece of his presidential campaign (“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people”).
Mr. Bush said, “The problem with the immigration debate is that one can create a lot of fear: They’re comin’ after you. But it’s a nation that is willing to accept the refugee or the harmed or the frightened, that to me is a great nation. And we are a great nation.”
The former president supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, if they pass a background check and pay back taxes.
“And if that were the proposal by President Biden,” asked O’Donnell, “would you lobby your own party to support that?”
“I am right now,” he replied. “Whether my own party listens to me or not’s another question.”
Though he has refrained from criticizing his successors, Mr. Bush told us there’s a clear difference between him and former President Donald Trump: “I feel a responsibility to uphold the dignity of the office. I did then, and I do now. And I think it’s undignified to wanna see my name in print all the time. I think it basically sends a signal that I miss being famous and, you know, I want people to see me. LISTEN TO ME! And, you know, I don’t. I really don’t.”
“So, you feel humbled by the office, it sounds like?” O’Donnell said.
“Totally. To me, humility shows an understanding of self. It shows a belief in a higher power that is necessary to be an effective leader. And we were short of humility,” Bush said.
“In the last four years?”
Bush left office in 2009 with approval ratings as poor as the state of the economy at the time. Yet the Trump presidency has inspired a fresh appraisal of the Bush years – something actor Will Ferrell poked fun at in a TBS comedy special: “How do you like me now?“
The real George W. Bush has made headlines with friendships that cross party lines. Case in point: the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
“There was that moment, where you and Mrs. Obama hugged,” O’Donnell said.
“The big hug, yeah. But I think the one that became more famous is when I gave her the Altoid during McCain’s funeral. And it shocked me. We got in the car and I think Barbara or Jenna said, ‘Hey, you’re trending!'” he laughed. “The American people were so surprised that Michelle Obama and I could be friends. I think it’s a problem that Americans are so polarized in their thinking that they can’t imagine a George W. Bush and a Michelle Obama being friends.”
Bush’s position on immigration does set him apart from his party’s most strident voices. And while he no longer has the bully pulpit of the presidency, he hopes his paintings will speak louder than words.
O’Donnell asked, “The portraits that you have done are beautiful. But how does it change policy?”
“It doesn’t,” Mr. Bush said. “But it’s a part of hopefully creating a better understanding about the role of immigrants in our society. Mine is just a small voice in what I hope is a chorus of people saying, ‘Let’s see if we can’t solve the problem.'”