Friday, January 25, 2008


Harper's Magazine features a great story about President George W. Bush and his favorite painting.

The Slipper Tongue

The painting is called "A Charge to Keep," and President Bush is so inspired by it that he has taken the painting’s name for his own official autobiography, saying:

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.

This is simply all too precious. The piece arrived in my in-box this morning as I was preparing to write the following bit of Taoist wisdom:

Cracking the Safe

For security against robbers who snatch purses, rifle luggage, and crack safes,
One must fasten all property with ropes, lock it up with locks, bolt it with bolts.
This (for property owners) is elementary good sense.
But when a strong thief comes along he picks up the whole lot,
Puts it on his back, and goes on his way with only one fear:
That ropes, locks, and bolts may give way.
Thus what the world calls good business is only a way
To gather up the loot, pack it, make it secure
In one convenient load for the more enterprising thieves.
Who is there, among those called smart,
Who does not spend his time amassing loot
For a bigger robber than himself?

In the land of Khi, from village to village,
You could hear cocks crowing, dogs barking.
Fishermen cast their nets,
Ploughmen ploughed the wide fields,
Everything was neatly marked out
By boundary lines. For five hundred square miles
There were temples for ancestors, alters
For field-gods and corn-spirits.
Every canton, county, and district
Was run according to the laws and statutes-
Until one morning the Attorney General, Tien Khang Tzu,
Did away with the King and took over the whole state.

Was he content to steal the land? No,
He also took over the laws and statutes at the same time,
And all the lawyers with them, not to mention the police.
They all formed part of the same package.

Of course, people called Khang Tzu a robber,
But they left him alone
To live as happy as the Patriarchs.
No small state would say a word against him,
No large state would make a move in his direction,
So for twelve generations the state of Khi
Belonged to his family. No one interfered
With his inalienable rights.

The invention
Of weights and measures
Makes robbery easier.
Signing contracts, settings seals,
Makes robbery more sure.
Teaching love and duty
Provides a fitting language
With which to prove that robbery
Is really for the general good.
A poor man must swing
For stealing a belt buckle
But if a rich man steals a whole state
He is acclaimed
As statesman of the year.

Hence if you want to hear the very best speeches
On love, duty, justice, etc.,
Listen to statesmen.

But when the creek dries up
Nothing grows in the valley.
When the mound is leveled
The hollow next to it is filled.
And when the statesmen and lawyers
And preachers of duty disappear
There are no more robberies either
And the world is at peace.

Moral: the more you pile up ethical principles
And duties and obligations
To bring everyone in line
The more you gather loot
For a thief like Khang
By ethical argument
And moral principle
The greatest crimes are eventually shown
To have been necessary, and, in fact,
A signal benefit
To mankind.

-The Way of Chuang Tzu - Thomas Merton

As it turns out Slate's Jacob Weisberg did a little research on the art work for his forthcoming book 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."

I'm not sure there is anything left to be said.

1 comment:

Bucky Blue said...

When I first saw the picture, without explanation, it seemed as if the man on the horse was riding away from his pursuers. The spread methodism explanation that Bush gave didn't seem to fit with the painting, for the reasons later given. Not surprising that what is plain and obvious to most people is not so to our president of the past seven years.