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Former President George W. Bush says his recent remarks have been misconstrued as criticism of Trump

 (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Former President George W. Bush on Wednesday pushed back at the notion that his recent remarks about the media were criticisms of President Trump.

“I’m asked the question, ‘Do I believe in free press?’ and the answer is absolutely, I believe in free press … because the press holds people to account,” he said. “Power is very addictive and it's corrosive if it becomes central to your life and therefore there needs to be an independent group of people who hold you to account. And so I answered that question and of course the headlines were, ‘Bush criticizes Trump.’ And so therefore I needed to say, ‘There should be a free and independent press, but it ought to be accurate.’”

Bush made the remarks at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley during an hourlong question-and-answer session promoting “Portraits of Courage," his new book that features his paintings of veterans. While doing media interviews about the book in recent days, he has raised eyebrows by making comments about the media, immigrants and allegations of Russian interference in the November presidential election that were widely viewed as criticisms of the new president.

He said that he decided once he left the office not to second-guess his successor, former President Obama, and that the same holds true for Trump. Doing so would undermine the office, Bush said, adding that he wants all of his successors to succeed because it is good for the nation.

“I don’t want to make the president’s job worse, no matter what political party it is. It’s a hard job,” Bush said. “Sometimes my remarks can be construed as criticism. They’re certainly not meant to be, and after I finish this book tour you probably won’t hear from me for a while.”

But he was willing to offer advice to those who follow him.

“Know what you don’t know and find people who do know what you don’t know and listen to them,” he said. “My advice is that the job is different once you get in. It looks one way and then you get in the Oval Office and it looks different. Trust me.”

Bush also made an implicit criticism of Obama’s foreign policy when asked whether the world is more dangerous than it was four years ago.

“This may be taken as criticism of one of my successors and I don’t really mean it to be. There is a lesson however when the United States decides not to take the lead and withdraw,” he said. “Vacuums can be created when U.S. presence recedes and that vacuum is generally filed with people who don’t share the ideology, the same sense of human rights and human dignity and freedom that we do.”

 (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Aside from a handful of serious moments, Bush was jovial and self-effacing as he described how he became an oil painter after leaving the White House. Seeking ways to fill his time, he said he read an essay by Winston Churchill about painting.

“I basically said, 'What the hell, this guy can paint, I can paint,'” Bush said.

He hired an instructor and started painting a cube and a watermelon before moving on to portraits. Former First Lady Laura Bush was not pleased with his depiction of her, so when he painted his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, he decided to depict her from behind.

Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush are doing well despite their recent hospitalizations, the younger Bush said.

“They’re both great given their limitations. Dad can’t walk, he’s confined to a wheelchair and yet his spirit is joyful,” Bush said. “… Mom’s doing fine. She’s shrinking, and as she does, her voice gets louder. But she’s a, she’s a piece of work is what she is.”

Bush has been reclusive since leaving office, but said he wrote the book and is publicizing it to raise money for veterans and to draw attention to the “invisible wounds” many of them suffer.

“I think when you read [their stories] you’ll be moved by stories of courage, injury, recovery willingness to help others,” he said. “… I’ve got a platform – it’s not as big as it once was — and I intend to use it to help our veterans for the rest of my life, and this is one way to do so.”

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