SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Former President George W. Bush said Wednesday that he does not plan to criticize President Trump, and said he didn’t intend his comments about the importance of a free press as a barb against his successor.
Mr. Bush, speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, said he didn’t criticize former President Barack Obama during his eight years in office, and he doesn’t plan to chide Mr. Trump, either.
Still, he said, the only time he gets attention is when he criticizes one of his successors. And he didn’t shy away from sharing opinions Wednesday, including saying the U.S. has left a vacuum in the last four years by retreating from the world stage — though he insisted it wasn’t meant to be a criticism of Mr. Obama.
“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.
Mr. Obama left office saying he would feel compelled to step in and criticize Mr. Trump on issues dear to his heart. Mr. Bush said he prefers a different approach.
“I think if a former president is out there second-guessing, it’s going to make it harder. I want anybody who is president to succeed,” he said.
Mr. Bush also pushed back against those who feel that politics has devolved into an all-time low.
“They used to call Abraham Lincoln an ape. So this isn’t the first time there’s been name-calling in politics,” the 70-year-old former president said.
Mr. Bush came under fire from some Trump supporters when he defended the free press, saying it was an important part of democracy. Press reports said he was aiming that at the current president because of Mr. Trump’s ongoing battles with news organizations he feels are unfair to him.
The former president, however, said he wasn’t intending to attack Mr. Trump. And he added a clarification Wednesday to his free press statement: “I needed to say, ‘There should be a free and independent press, but it ought to be accurate.’”
He said he’s comfortable with his decision to remain out of the spotlight, no matter who’s in the Oval Office.
“When President Obama was president, I used to get a lot of calls from the heartland saying, ‘You need to speak out.’ Now I’m getting calls from the coast saying, ‘You need to speak out,’ ” he said.
The former president was enticed into public because he’s touting his new book, “Portraits of Courage,” which is a compendium of his paintings of American troops. The proceeds go to the Bush Center’s veteran support causes.
Mr. Bush’s passion for painting has fascinated a country that was deeply divided on his time in the White House.
“There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body,” he said, recounting a conversation he had with his instructor, Gail Norfleet.
Upon leaving the White House, Mr. Bush said he found himself going from full speed to full stop and needed something to keep himself going. A fan of Winston Churchill, he had read the former British leader was a devotee of painting.
“I basically said, ‘What the hell, this guy can paint; I can paint,’ ” Mr. Bush said.
He said he got his start painting pets, and then took a shot at painting his wife, Laura. He thought it was good, but she wasn’t pleased with it, first saying he made her “too anguished,” then griping about his follow-up attempts. The former president finally gave up.
When he painted his mother, he said he learned his lesson and painted her “from the back.”
Mr. Bush said his brain now sees the world as a painter. He said that was clear when he taped an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, to air Thursday, earlier in the day: “I looked in her eyes, and I said I can mix that color.”
He said his next subject will be himself.
“My face, on 6-foot canvas — that’s a lot of face. And so I’m working on that,” he said. “It turns out each part of your face becomes a portrait unto itself.”