Brow Beat

The Irony Lurking in Bush’s Official Portrait

The painting known as A Charge to Keep, by W.H.D. Koerner

Former President George W. Bush had his official presidential portrait unveiled at a special ceremony at the White House today. It’s fairly standard issue: Bush stands in the Oval Office, his hands on a chair, with a look that Roland Barthes noted decades ago is typical of political portraits. (“The gaze is lost nobly in the future, it does not confront, it soars and fertilizes some other domain, which is chastely left undefined.”) You can see the new portrait over at Talking Points Memo.

One detail stands out, though: President Bush’s favorite painting, the one he kept by his desk, and the one for which he named his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep. Bush loved to regale visitors with what he thought was the story behind the painting, telling how it depicted the famous circuit riders who in the nineteenth century spread the message of Methodism across the Alleghenies. Bush, a Methodist since the 1970s, identified with the quest of the noble cowboy missionary, and visitors often noted the resemblance between Bush and the lead rider.

There’s only one problem with that story: As Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg wrote in his 2008 book The Bush Tragedy, “that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting.”* Weisberg explains:

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.”

Whether or not Bush ever learned the true story behind the painting seems to be unclear, but if so, he’s sticking to his guns, unwanted ironies be damned. Indeed, President Bush seems determined to ride off with Koerner’s painting into history.

*Update, June 1, 2012: While Bush’s story of the painting’s origins still appears to be false, aspects of Weisberg’s account have also been disputed. As University of Illinois professor Cara Finnegan points out on her blog First Efforts, an illustration that ran with the horse thief story “The Slipper Tongue” in The Saturday Evening Post is actually a very similar-looking but different Koerner composition, also depicting a man working his way up a hill on a horse. The Google Books archive, similarly, shows the same similar-looking but different Koerner illustration.

Contacted about the dispute, Weisberg agreed that he may have confused the two illustrations, and explained that his photocopy of “The Slipper Tongue” may simply have been blurry.

Not disputed by Finnegan is the later appearance of the composition, also mentioned in Weisberg’s book, with the 1918 Country Gentleman story “A Charge to Keep.” Both Finnegan and Weisberg note that this illustration, now the first confirmed appearance of the painting, is not about Methodist missionaries either. As Weisberg points out, the story—about a son’s fight to keep his land, inherited from his father, from “rapacious timber barons”—may contain a different irony altogether.