Yale professor’s advice to former U.S. president: Paint

April 26, 2013

In an interview with Laura Bush that aired April 25 on NPR, the former First Lady mentioned that her husband had taken up the hobby of painting at the suggestion of Yale professor John Gaddis. YaleNews asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian how he came to know President George W. Bush ’68, and why he recommended that the former president read Winston Churchill’s “Painting as a Pastime.” Gaddis is a principal teacher of Yale’s “Studies in Grand Strategies” seminar, which trains future leaders to think imaginatively and effectively about handling a range of situations in a variety of realms. Here’s what he told us.

How did you happen to know President Bush well enough to recommend he take up painting as a hobby?

I’d gotten to know President Bush from having participated in the history seminars he periodically convened while in the White House, but also through my former student Chris Michel — now finishing up at Yale Law School — who became the President’s chief speechwriter and worked with him on his memoir

My wife, Toni, and I were in Dallas for an alumni talk in March, 2012, and Chris arranged for us to stop by the President’s office for a visit. During the course of the conversation, he commented on having more time on his hands than he’d been used to. I reminded him that Winston Churchill, when faced with a similar situation on leaving the Admiralty in 1915, had taken up painting, and had written a great essay about it: “Painting as a Pastime.”

President Bush nodded, said nothing more, and I knew nothing more until he sent me a note last summer saying that Churchill’s essay had inspired him to take up water colors, and that he was moving on to oils. Then this spring, the results became public when his email was hacked.

Does Churchill’s essay on painting have special significance for you?

“Painting as a Pastime” is required reading in Yale’s “Studies in Grand Strategy Seminar.” We use it to make the point that leaders need breaks from leadership to recharge their batteries — hence the value of hobbies, and Churchill’s is the best explanation of their value. But Churchill also makes the point, more significant for us, that applying paint to an empty canvas forces you to think about how everything relates to everything else. That’s the key, really, to understanding grand strategy — the connection to art helps our students see this.

So, what do you think of President Bush as an artist?

The paintings I’ve seen seem pretty good to me.