Bush And His Favorite Painting

7 03 2008

Once again fact is stranger than fiction.

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 Bush believed it to be entitled “A Charge to Keep.” Bush was so taken by it, that he even took the painting’s name for his own official autobiography.

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.

Alas as with most things Bush believes, he got this one completely wrong too. According to Jacob Weisberg:

[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 lying horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. I can’t think of a more 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.

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