Saturday, January 26, 2008

George W. Bush's favorite painting

From Scott Horton, "The Illustrated President," Harper's, January 24, 2008:

George W. Bush is famous for his attachment to a painting which he acquired after becoming a “born again Christian.” It’s by W.H.D. Koerner and is entitled “A Charge to Keep.” Bush was so taken by it, that he took the painting’s name for his own official autobiography. And here’s what he says about it:

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.

So in Bush’s view (or perhaps I should say, faith) the key figure, with whom he personally identifies, is a missionary spreading the word of the Methodist Christianity in the American West in the late nineteenth century.


Bush’s description of “A Charge to Keep” struck me as very strange. In fact, I’d say highly improbable. Now, however, Jacob Weisberg has solved the mystery. He invested the time to track down the commission behind the art work and he gives us the full story in his forthcoming book on Bush, The Bush Tragedy:

[Bush] 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.”

So Bush’s inspiring, prosyletizing Methodist is in fact a silver-tongued horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. It seems a fitting marker for the Bush presidency. Bush has consistently exhibited what psychologists call the “Tolstoy syndrome.” That is, he is completely convinced he knows what things are, so he shuts down all avenues of inquiry about them and disregards the information that is offered to him. This is the hallmark of a tragically bad executive. But in this case, it couldn’t be more precious. The president of the United States has identified closely with a man he sees as a mythic, heroic figure. But in fact he’s a wily criminal one step out in front of justice. It perfectly reflects Bush the man. . . and Bush the president.

In an update, Horton points out that Sidney Blumenthal traced the story of this painting in an April 2007 column at

(Hat tip to Dave Palmer on the SKEPTIC list.)

UPDATE (January 27, 2008): Commenter Bruce points out below that this painting misidentification was discovered even earlier by Jonathan Hutson in a blog post titled "Horseshit! Bush and the Christian Cowboy" at Talk to Action in May of 2006. Hutson uncovers the correct name of the painting and the story it was intended to illustrate, but doesn't point out that the character in the story who Bush identifies with in the painting is a thief fleeing from justice.


Hume's Ghost said...

Adding another level to the irony, I just listened yesterday to a podcast of Weisberg on NPR's Fresh Air discussing his book and he points out that while Bush is an evangelical Christian, he doesn't actually act like an evangelical Christian. That is, he doesn't really make any effort to prosletyze, not even to his children.

Weisberg says that he has a quote in the book from Bill Clinton about Bush that is dead on ... I can't remember it exactly but the gist was: Bush doesn't know anything, he doesn't want to know anything. But he's not stupid.

Incidentally, I believe this is my favorite painting. I'm also partial to Magritte's other version. They're both titled "The Human Condition"

Jim Lippard said...

Both are very nice. I've enjoyed Magritte's work since reading Goedel, Escher, Bach, which provoked me to buy Suzi Gablik's book on Magritte and a couple of Escher books.

The most recent art books I've bought that I've found comparably interesting are Mark Ryden's Anima Mundi and the Codex Seraphinianus.

Bruce said...

Jim - Adding yet another level of irony to this is the fact that this story about George W. Bush's "A Charge To Keep" painting was actually first broken, by author and lawyer Jonathan Hutson, over a year and a half ago on Talk To Action. It's a great read too.

Bruce said...

Oops - let me provide a dedicated url for Hutson's story:

Horseshit! Bush and the Christian Cowboy

Jim Lippard said...

Bruce: Thanks for pointing out this earlier expose... I'll update the main post to include a link.

Nate Watson said...

At least the guy who could be an inspiration for his maverick actions is dead...slightly better than the Falwell/Reagan relationship that yielded a dispensationally fueled cold war.
Not much better though.