Friday, February 8, 2008

This Post Is Not A Defense Of George W. Bush...


Every morning after BBC World Service, my community radio station plays a couple minutes of Texas snark by Jim Hightower, who bills himself as America’s #1 Populist! The late Molly Ivins liked him, enough to quote his Wildean epigram “The only thing in the middle of the road is yellow stripes and dead armadillos” every chance she got. Sorry, Molls, wherever you are, but it’ll never replace “I can resist anything except temptation” in my heart.

So, this morning’s snark was about a painting George W. Bush keeps in the Oval Office. No, it’s not a portrait of Jeff Gannon in Rambo drag, it’s “A Charge To Keep” by the German-American illustrator W. H. D. Koerner:

Bush believes that this here is a pitcher of a Methodist circuit minister, keeping his charge through mountaintop, tree roots, snow and sleet and hail and dead of night. I don’t know who the fellas riding behind him are supposed to be. As it happens, the painting was originally commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post in 1916 to illustrate a short story called “The Slipper Tongue,” and that rider is a horse thief fleeing a lynch mob.

Now, I agree that’s a horse laugh on Dubya, who everybody knows is (in one of Molly Ivins’s better phrases, though she wrote it about another Texas pol) smarter than a box of rocks. It seems that this story first broke big last month when Timothy Noah wrote about it on Slate, though Scott Horton of Harper’s has links to other stories going back to early 2004.

You can imagine the hilarity that ensued in the blogosphere, about Bush’s delusional tendency to hear what he wants to hear and believe what he wants to believe. Horton’s and Noah’s articles were much linked to and clucked over. And of course, Bush does hear what he wants to hear and believes what he wants to believe. But there was a catch, if you read far enough in Noah’s article – and children, always read to the end of news stories, or at least jump ahead to the closing grafs, because that’s where the good parts usually are.

The painting was subsequently recycled by the Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a nonfiction story. The caption that time was, "Bandits Move About From Town to Town, Pillaging Whatever They Can Find." Koerner published the illustration a third and final time in a magazine called the Country Gentleman. On this go-round, it was indeed used to illustrate a short story that related to Wesley's hymn. But the story's moral was a little off-message. According to Weisberg, it was "about a son who receives a legacy from his father—a beautiful forest in the Northeast and a plea to protect it from rapacious timber barons." Apparently nobody ever got around to notifying Bush's Interior Department.

Y’see, Hightower and the others who’ve written about this story seem to believe that a picture can have only one meaning. That wasn’t obvious to the Post or to the artist himself, who sold the same picture to “illustrate” a very different story. And it could probably have illustrated a range of other tales and situations – even that of a Methodist circuit preacher, though I admit I can’t see that one myself. I find all this ironic, given the way liberals like to accuse Christian fundamentalists of literalism, because of the obsessive literal-mindedness involved in this insistence that Bush is illegitimately imposing the wrong meaning on this painting. (The title “A Charge to Keep” is Bush’s own, apparently, not Koerner’s, but that’s not exactly a hangin' crime either. Many works have titles by which they’re popularly known, like “Whistler’s Mother” or “the Mona Lisa” or “The Lone Ranger Theme.”) If Bush were an art historian, his reading would be risible, but he’s not.

And given the enormity of Bush’s real crimes and most Democrats’ (including liberal ones’) complicity in them, I must say this reminds me of something that an Iowa waitress named Anita Esterday told the New York Times in November:

“You people are really nuts,” she told a reporter during a phone interview. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn’t get a tip.”

Or whether George W. Bush has correctly identified the subject and theme of an early 20th century Western kitsch painting. But I suppose it passes the time until the Democrats get to take their turn in the Oval Office again.