George W. Bush’s new and second art book, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants,” is a splendid work. At its simplest, it is a collection of 43 full-color portraits of men and women who immigrated to the United States.
In addition, each portrait is accompanied by three or four pages of biographies reflecting Bush’s understanding and admiration for each person’s contribution to our country. Bush paints his hidden agenda clear and bright.
Bush is deliberately stirring the immigration debate. In the preface, he recounts the efforts of three of his predecessors’ concerns about immigration, writing that George Washington articulated a guidepost for his successors by saying, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”
Additionally, Bush quotes from John F. Kennedy’s “A Nation of Immigrants,” saying, “The wisest Americans have always understood the significance of immigration” and Ronald Reagan’s final speech at the White House that immigration “is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.”
The portrait project has plenty of good old-fashioned patriotism as suggested by the title, “E Pluribus Unum.” Imagine if all candidates for public office were required to write an essay about the meaning of that term. The first painting in the book is the top of the Statue of Liberty with the facing page bearing a passage from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” source of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The 43rd president reportedly surprised his wife and daughters when he decided to take up painting about a decade ago. He says he was “longing for learning” after he left the White House and was inspired by Winston Churchill, who took up painting to occupy his mind after he left office.
I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. I like Bush’s style of bright colors with a moderate dose of interpretation and flair. His portraits remind me of impressionists or maybe even the pop art of Andy Warhol but with a clear sense of purpose.
There is already an emerging academic specialty interpreting Bush’s art style and accomplishments. Art historian Kim Grant writes, “Bush is an amateur painter, but he is an expert in public relations, image making and the media.”
Bush’s collection of 43 portraits features a couple of celebrities but mostly ordinary folks, most of whom Bush got to know in various ways. Bush’s first portrait is that of Joseph Kim, a young man who came to the United States as a refugee. Bush learned of Kim’s escape from North Korea in “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” a book suggested to him by Henry Kissinger, who is also painted in the book. Kim now works at the Bush Institute in Dallas, where the former president sees him often.
The second portrait in the book is of Paula Rendon, a Mexican immigrant whom Bush met when he was 13 years old and his family hired as a nanny and household assistant. She worked for the Bush family for more than 50 years.
Some other celebrities included are former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, sports stars Dirk Nowitzki and Annika Sorenstam, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and St. Louis Cardinals hero Albert Pujols, who became a citizen in 2007.
I particularly liked the portraits and stories of Shinae Oh of North Korea and Ezinne Uzo-Okoro from Nigeria. Oh, perhaps the most recent immigrant having arrived in San Jose, California, in 2012, escaped from North Korea via China. Oh ended up in Chicago, supported by the Korean community, to pursue education and community involvement. She learned about Christianity there and is now in divinity school.
Uzo-Okoro and her family came to the U.S. on her 16th birthday for education opportunities. So far, she has received three master’s degrees, is pursuing a Ph.D., is a NASA engineer, has married an American and has a son. And she has run 12 marathons within 24 months.
In addition to the 43 portraits, the volume includes two colorful appendices helpful for understanding immigration. The first presents facts about the 13.5% of the U.S. population who are immigrants. The second diagrams the four ways to obtain a green card, which identifies the bearer as a permanent resident in the U.S.: employment, diversity, family and investment. Out of about 19 million applicants annually, 1.1 million receive green cards.
Of course, almost everything former presidents do is political, and the 43rd has been a little more activist than others. He authored an op-ed in the Washington Post in April featuring his new book but also explicitly advocating immigration reforms. Bush supports DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), offering a path to citizenship to those brought here as children who grew up in the U.S. and know no other home. Bush compassionately argues that “they ought not be punished for choices made by their parents.” Bush also argues for better border security because we need to have law and order as well as freedom.
If you are looking for a Memorial Day or Fourth of July holiday gift, or if you need a dose of feel-good pride in your country, it would be hard to beat the former president’s portraits of America’s immigrants.