January 27, 2008

At Least He's Consistent

While on the campaign trail in 1999, George W. Bush did what so many candidates for president do these days: with the assistance of a ghostwriter, he penned a book intended to encapsulate his ideas and ideals while marking himself as a serious individual possessed of at least some level of scholarly gravitas. The tome in question was entitled A Charge to Keep : My Journey to the White House, taking its name from a painting by W.H.D. Koerner.

Then-Governor Bush was thoroughly captivated by the imagery in the Koerner work, and when he gained the White House, he had it hung in the Oval Office. Mr. Bush's love of the painting however, is based less on its actual provenance then on what he'd like it to depict, pesky facts be damned. From The Bush Tragedy:
In an April 1995 memo, Bush invited his staff to come to his office to look at a painting. … The picture is a Western scene of a cowboy riding up a craggy hill, with two other riders following behind him. Bush told visitors—who often noted his resemblance to the rider in front—that it was called A Charge To Keep and that it was based on his favorite Methodist hymn of that title, written in the eighteenth century by Charles Wesley. As Bush noted in the memo, which he quoted in his autobiography of the same title: "I thought I would share with you a recent bit of Texas history which epitomizes our mission. When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves." Bush identified with the lead rider, whom he took to be a kind of Christian cowboy, an embodiment of indomitable vigor, courage, and moral clarity.
He came to believe that the picture depicted the circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. In other words, the cowboy who looked like Bush was a missionary of his own denomination.

Only that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting. The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled "The Slipper Tongue," published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: "Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught."
Although it was repurposed several times to serve as an illustration for various articles, the original intent of the painting - and his misinterpretation of it - is an almost poetic metaphor for the presidency of George W. Bush. While he likes to see himself as a man of vision on a quest he pursues with missionary zeal, in reality, like Koerner's rider, Mr. Bush is a demonstrated criminal. Given his track record, I suppose it is only fitting that it is the mis-reading of facts and an ignorance of history that has brought this to public attention.

(Of course all of this would be a lot funnier if George W. Bush weren't President of the United States. And if his proclivity for playing fast and loose with data that doesn't fit his personal reality hadn't lead to so much death and destruction. And economic instability. And if it wasn't embarrassingly tragic that a man so consistently, thoroughly and obviously flawed was ever given the presidency once, let alone twice.)

[Hat tip to Marshall Chapin.]

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