Late Night

W. Charms on the ‘Tonight’ Show

What a difference a few years makes. George W. Bush was a delight with Jay Leno—revealing a new painting, cracking jokes about Putin, and only indirectly tweaking Obama.

Stacie McChesney/NBC, via Getty

Context is everything, especially when it comes to the appearances of former presidents on late-night talk shows, so it’s hardly a surprise that George W. Bush was perfectly charming Tuesday night on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Former first lady Laura Bush, who eventually joined her husband on the couch, was even more perfectly charming.

Gone was the president who lost the popular vote to Al Gore by half a million ballots but was handed the White House anyway by the Republican majority on the Supreme Court; whose national security team ignored actionable intelligence about a coming al Qaeda attack on the United States; who entangled the nation in a costly, bloody preemptive war against Iraq under false pretenses, using cooked-up evidence; who terribly mishandled the occupation of that damaged and alien country, causing even more death and destruction; who sanctioned official torture and other human rights violations but didn’t get Osama bin Laden; who, at the start of his second term, tragically botched the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina; and who presided over a massive financial meltdown that sent Wall Street tumbling into the abyss and resulted in one of the worst recessions in American history.

That guy? Nowhere to be seen.

Instead, the George Bush who schmoozed with Leno was a wryly humorous, self-deprecating, still-vital 67-year-old who likes to laugh at himself and paint pictures of his pets on canvas while performing good works, such as refurbishing health clinics in Africa, where he and his wife Laura are fighting cervical and breast cancer among the women there, and helping the wounded warriors who were physically and psychically maimed in his ill-advised military adventures. “It’s a tremendous honor to have the 43rd president of the United States…on the show tonight,” Leno announced, prompting the studio audience to erupt in a sustained cheer that probably would not have greeted Bush when he was still in office and his public approval ratings were even worse than Barack Obama’s.

“Better him than me,” Bush quipped when Leno pointed out that he aims most of the political barbs in his monologue these days at the 44th president and seldom if ever makes fun of 43 anymore.

Wearing a sharp blue suit, crisp white shirt and red patterned tie, Bush looked supremely relaxed and in command as he strolled onstage while the audience cheered ecstatically and the Tonight Show band played Hail to the Chief. The 63-year-old Leno—who, after two decades at the big desk, is scheduled to relinquish NBC’s marquee late-night program to Jimmy Fallon early next year—thanked Bush for agreeing to come on. And, indeed, the booking was quite a coup, given that since leaving office nearly five years ago, 43 has pretty much kept out of the headlines and avoided any and all interviews, except to promote his memoirs, tout the opening of his presidential library in Dallas and pocket millions of dollars, as former presidents tend to do, by giving speeches behind closed doors to various groups of plutocrats here and abroad.

“You’re about to head out to pasture,” Bush said, explaining why he accepted Leno’s invitation, “and I just wanted to see what you looked like before you got to the gate.” At another point, Bush was made to watch perhaps painful video of himself attempting to dance with a group of African women—showing off goofy moves that could have been choreographed by Will Ferrell—and the effect was completely endearing.

Leno asked why he has been so reticent to publicize his opinions about President Obama and his policies. “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president criticize his successor,” Bush answered, to raucous applause. “Eight years is plenty. Laura and I love living in Texas…I don’t miss the spotlight. Eight years in the spotlight is enough.”

Still, Bush was palpably enjoying himself. Which politician wouldn’t? Leno’s studio audience basically love-bombed the guy.

The former president made little to no news, unless you count the painted portrait of a grinning, puffy-faced Leno he presented to the host—not that bad a likeness, actually, but not all that flattering either. “I can’t make fun of him now,” a clearly touched Leno remarked, promising to hang it in a place of honor as soon he got home. It turns out that the former president was grateful that the comic had taken the time some months ago to headline a wounded warriors dinner at the Bush home in Dallas.

Obama's predecessor did kibitz a teensy bit, cautioning against too thorough a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan—which Obama has promised for next year—lest that country's women be plunged back into the dark ages by the Taliban. Leno asked if we should maintain a military presence on the order of Korea.

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"I hope so," 43 responded. "If we leave too early, women and young girls will suffer a lot. Then the question [is], does it matter to our conscience? I think it should."

Bush told an anecdote about Vladimir Putin—“I love the guy,” he claimed—who belittled the late Scottish terrier Barney while boasting about the athletic prowess of his hound in Russia. "You should have nuked him," Leno said, prompting Bush to giggle. He talked about his post-presidential hobby of painting portraits and landscapes. “You may not think I’m a painter. I think I’m a painter,” he said, recalling how he was inspired after reading an essay on the subject by Winston Churchill and began taking weekly lessons. He said he told his painting instructor, Gail Norfleet, “There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body. It’s your job to find it.”

He talked dotingly about his new granddaughter, Jenna's baby Mila. He praised his 89-year-old father, George Bush 41—“he’s a joyful man”—and marveled at his 88-year-old mother, Barbara, who—when he informed her he’d decided to run for governor of Texas against popular Democratic incumbent Ann Richards, told him, “You can’t win.” And despite his mother’s outspoken lack of enthusiasm for a Jeb Bush presidential campaign, 43 was bullish on the prospect, opining that his younger brother, the former governor of Florida, would make a great president if he decides to run in 2016.

In due course, the band played Laura Bush onstage to Deep in the Heart of Texas, and the former first lady modeled a hot pink dress and a pearl choker--a 36thwedding anniversary gift from her husband. Leno asked about his recent cardiovascular surgery in which doctors installed a stent to open up a clogged artery.

“It was scary. It was very scary,” Laura mused.

“I wasn’t that scared,” George insisted.

To which Leno quipped: “You had Obamacare?”

Bush might be restraining himself from publicly criticizing Obama, but his reaction--throwing back his head and splitting his sides laughing, nearly sliding out of his seat as he did so—was political commentary enough.