I completed my citizenship interview and exam in the tense days between January 6 and January 20, 2021, when being tested on the coherence of the American nation felt particularly surreal. The kind bureaucrat who congratulated me upon passing suggested I attend a special naturalization ceremony for teachers. Touched at the thought, I thanked her and eagerly agreed. She called me a few days later to explain that they had had to cancel that ceremony, but she had put me on the list for another “very special” ceremony. Over the weeks and months that followed I received enough calls from a “private number” in the middle of the afternoon that I came to know when it was United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the line. They told me that I had been approved for this special ceremony, that there would be a special guest, that it would be filmed, and that it would be televised live on The Today Show. At any point I could have declined to participate. I didn’t. I showed up at Rockefeller Plaza at 6 a.m. on the appointed day still unaware of who the special guest would be.
When I overheard a USCIS employee explaining to another new citizen that “the president wants to know if we can pass on your home addresses so he can send you all his new book,” my mind still did not make space for the possibility that the “president” would be George W. Bush. He writes books? I wondered. When I finally heard his name uttered aloud, I looked around for an exit. But then I remembered: my citizenship had not yet been conferred.
Beforehand, I had told myself numerous stories about why I was pursuing American citizenship: the US had undeniably become home, I wanted to vote, I wanted to cross borders with the same passport as my children. To myself, however, I carefully avoided the question of whether or not I could obtain American citizenship—with relative ease as a white, cis-gendered, straight, professional, upper middle-class Canadian—without also engaging in American violence.
But now here I was, participating in a shocking display of televised propaganda, waving my tiny flag furiously as the camera swooped around us ahead of each commercial break. In the presence of George W. Bush, I uttered an oath in which I promised to forego all previous loyalties and be willing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.” It was a powerful and painful reminder that all of these elements—my family, my community, and American violence—cannot be disentangled.
Bush was on The Today Show promoting his new book, a signed copy of which arrived at my home a week later. Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants. As a text, it aims for the coffee table. The term portrait does double duty, as he provides both brief written accounts of the lives of those he profiles and reproductions of the paintings he completed. The painted portraits aren’t bad. In one profile, a Cuban real estate mogul, Armando Codina, compliments Bush “as ‘an underestimated President who is now an underestimated artist.’” “Misunderestimated,” Bush corrects him.
More than anything else, the book serves as an attempt to refurbish Bush’s image—a head-spinning reevaluation that is plausible only in light of the catastrophic presidency of Donald Trump. Reaching through the haze of the past four years and the tens of thousands of lies, dog whistles, obfuscations, nonwords, nonsentences, and nonsense, it is wrenching to recall that once upon a time the educated public liked to laugh at Bushisms like “misunderestimated.”
In keeping with Bush’s well-earned reputation as a frat boy capable of no more than minimal effort in any given task, almost all of the people he profiles are those he knows personally. He begins with the nanny who raised him and his siblings, working for his family until she died at age 97. Along the way, we meet his daughter’s running coach, stalwart conservative pundits, former advisors, and many successful capitalists who have wandered through the George W. Bush Institute, a foundation housed in his Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University with the modest goals of “saving lives, extending freedom and democracy, and advocating for women worldwide.” The few poor people include a gatekeeper at the parking lot of his Dallas office and a nanny for one of his employees at the institute.
So this is not a deep dive into the diversity of the American immigrant experience. Instead, Bush’s book is the result of swinging a cat and asking to paint those who get scratched.
Christianity, capitalism, and America converge in borderline amusing ways throughout the book. The stories Bush tells are well written and often compelling. He generally begins by identifying something essential to the person and situating them in their joyful lives postcitizenship before darting back to recount origin stories and, at times, harrowing tales. Surprise endings generally reveal that these immigrants are now stunningly successful and proud to employ many Americans. American brands pop up like religious beacons, beckoning immigrants toward their fate in the US.
Bob Fu, for example, faced imprisonment in China for his Christian evangelism and, after escaping to Hong Kong in 1997—just before its return to Chinese rule—he and his wife were rejected from legal migration to Finland, Australia, and the US. Fifteen days before the handover, Bob felt the urge and “went to McDonald’s for a hamburger.” There he bumped into none other than Peter Jennings, in Hong Kong interviewing residents about the handover. Bob took the opportunity to evangelize for a television audience and explained that “my family will be arrested again for our Christian religious beliefs, unless the United States government will act on our behalf. Please, America, stand up for religious freedom.” He and his wife were on a plane to the US shortly thereafter.
Bits of American history surface occasionally in these narratives. The founding fathers and the pilgrims seeking “religious freedom” tend to be conflated. Absolutely no mention is made of slavery. The only time words such as “Indian” and related terms like “chiefs” come up is in reference to the baseball teams that some of the sports heroes he profiles play for.
His only mention of a nonimmigrant Black American besides Barack Obama comes in the story of a Pakistan-born oil executive who sees an “elderly black woman” rooting through the garbage and asks if she has lost something. When she explains she is looking for food, he hands her an envelope with $10,000 in it. Bush’s marking of Blackness here indicates the depth of the woman’s poverty in contrast to the immigrants’ meteoric success.
Reading the book is interesting insofar as Bush remains a deeply weird guy. His eye for detail is nearly as impressive as his capacity to misinterpret those details. Who takes a story about an envelope full of cash given to a poor stranger and turns it into a morality tale?
My favorite is the story of a young man named Ali from Baghdad. He recounts to Bush that he and his mother were delighted at the arrival of US troops in Iraq, which prior to 2003 had been like the “dark ages.” She made him carry an American flag and a picture of Bush to show to troops they might meet on the streets.
Ali was eventually approved to work as a translator and, while hiding in an American military base to avoid exposing himself, he ate enough Frosted Flakes for the soldiers to start calling him “Tony.” He eventually came to the US through a program for translators but had to work several minimum-wage jobs to pay back the cost of his flight. It took years to be reunited with his wife and child, but when he was finally approved for citizenship, he legally changed his name to Tony George Bush.
How does one unravel the layers of such a tale? If it was the American flag that she asked him to display when out in the streets, whom did his mother fear more: local insurgents or American troops? What kind of anxieties about belonging inspired such a name change? Although he is now a US citizen, Tony George Bush’s profile ends with his desire to “thank the American people for allowing me to have a beautiful life here among all of you.”
And this is how I found myself belatedly offering up all five of my fingers to fist bump the former president.
This mix of naiveté, one-beat-off strangeness, and insidious violence made meeting Bush in person a very destabilizing experience. I felt shaken for days afterward.
He is just how you imagine him to be, an incorrigible socializer; his handlers kept pleading with him—to no avail—to wear his mask. Jovial, relaxed, and a constant joke teller, he worried loudly that they weren’t letting us pee often enough. Even when he could have been chatting with celebrity hosts, he seemed pulled to banter with us.
One fellow new citizen who owns a number of bars in the city remarked to me that Bush would be a great guy to get a beer with, imagining that hilarious antics would ensue. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Bush famously does not drink.
Domestication is key to the rebranding of Bush as a “good” conservative. His interview on The Today Show was conducted in part by his daughter Jenna, who is one of the hosts of the show. She explained for the viewing audience that although when her father left office, his approval rating was as low as 21 percent, it now sits at 61 percent. They played a clip of Will Ferrell doing his impression of Bush asking, “How do you like me now?” Laughing, the other host remarked that “history has been super kind.” It was the strangest euphemism for the Trump presidency I have heard.
The list of Bush’s failures as president is long and grim, and we will be living with the repercussions of his choices for decades. Even with the specter of Trump, rehabilitating the man responsible for starting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands will take work. And it is work in which I participated, watching along with my fellow new citizens as he played Pictionary to show us, Jenna explained, that he was a “good artist.” When the other host commented that she had heard that he and his wife decided to marry after only three months of knowing each other, he shrugged and smirked. “I’m a decisive person,” he reminded us.
So many stories Bush recounts in Out of Many, One implicitly point to the paradox my naturalization ceremony finally forced me to confront, as people running from violence in which the US plays an integral role enter this country only to face poverty, racism, and resentment (which only a few explicitly acknowledge in the book). The vast majority of immigrants to the US do invisible, “essential” labor without thanks or reward while remaining separated from their loved ones. A small number—the immigrants Bush prefers—eventually achieve the dream of capitalist excess. To live in America is to embrace the everydayness of its violence.
In November 2004, along with many of my fellow Canadians, I lined the streets of Ottawa’s downtown to yell angrily at a motorcade. The event was Bush’s first official visit to Canada. The war in Iraq was still relatively new; I vividly recall my earnest outrage at the highly militarized display his visit required. That night, my roommate and I watched TV coverage of the protests. Bush’s smug grin on the screen repulsed me. At one point, though, he reached out “to thank the Canadian people who came out to wave—with all five fingers—for their hospitality.” To my shock, I found myself laughing out loud.
Within a year, I crossed the border to begin my doctorate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Sixteen years later, with an American husband, two American children, and a tenure-track position at an American research university, I unexpectedly found myself in intimate proximity to that same grin that had startled me so many years ago.
Refusing to abide by the strict COVID protocols that forced me to sit so far away from my fellow new citizens, Bush insisted on chatting with each of us, up close. His one accommodation to public health measures was that, rather than a handshake, he reached out to me with a fist. And this is how I found myself belatedly offering up all five of my fingers to fist bump the former president.
At the program’s end, unable to contain himself any longer, Bush put out his surprisingly strong hand for us all to shake. He chuckled and raised his brow when I squeezed equally hard and shook him back.
This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke.