Funny thing about archives. They contain so many darn facts, so many pieces of information. And sometimes these pieces of information stubbornly refuse to fit the narratives we want to circulate.
Exhibit A: The "President's Painting is Really a Horse Thief!"
Between 2006-2008 or so, several versions of the following narrative started floating around the mediablogosphere. Like many narratives, it began based in fact.
Fact: President George W. Bush kept a painting in the Oval Office that he likes to call "A Charge to Keep." It was given to him by a good friend and also hung in his office while he was Governor of Texas. The artist is W. H. D. Koerner, who was a western-style magazine illustrator.
More facts: It's well-known that Bush liked to show people the painting and tell them how the painting (named, he said, after the Methodist hymn of the same name), reflected his "nature" and inspired his thinking about faith and leadership. He even spoke about it during a video tour of the Oval Office meant for the White House web site.
Then lefty bloggers and others came along to tell us that there was a "real story" about the painting that made these facts read differently. Here's the supposedly real story: The first time the image appeared in print, in a 1916 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, it was used to illustrate a story called "The Slipper Tongue," which is about a horse thief!Thus, as Harper's magazine's Scott Horton put it in a 2008 article, "Bush's inspiring, proselytizing Methodist is in fact a horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. It seems a fitting marker for the Bush presidency." Ha ha! Pretty good. Lots of folks picked up on this. It's a good story, especially in post-Katrina everybody hates Bush America.
This supposedly real story circulated in a number of places between 2006-2008. Horton says got this information from Jacob Weisberg's then-upcoming book, The Bush Tragedy. After Horton's piece was published, a number of readers wrote in to say that Weisberg wasn't the first person to get this same supposedly real story on the painting. Sidney Blumenthal had written about it in a 2007 salon.com piece on Bush's visual politics of torture. Blumenthal noted, as Horton and Weisberg had, that the image was first published in 1916 with "The Slipper Tongue" (though he didn't work the horse thief angle). He also mentioned that the very same image had been published two other times, again in the Saturday Evening Post, to illustrate a 1917 story called "Ways that Are Dark," and finally in a 1918 story in Country Gentleman magazine titled "A Charge to Keep." Next, others argued a lefty Christian blogger named jhutson should be credited for being the first to notice that the image was first printed in a story about a horse thief. Finally, the apparent origin of the story of the "horse thief painting" was traced to a 2004 piece in the Milwaukeeworld Roundup.
All of these people are wrong. Bush's beloved painting never appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1916 to illustrate a short story about a horse thief.
How do I know? I went to the archive. For reasons only geeky researchers can truly understand, I recently visited the University of Illinois library to look for the articles in which Koerner's/Bush's painting supposedly appeared. Armed with such specific citations, I assumed it would be quick work to get copies of the image as it appeared in these three sites and thus confirm the origins of the horse thief story for certain - before I repeated it myself in a public talk.
Here's what I found instead:
"The Slipper Tongue" 1916, Saturday Evening Post. A Koerner image, but not Bush's Koerner:
It's definitely not this, is it?
The same image that really appeared in "The Slipper Tongue" also reappeared in "Ways That Are Dark," the second story that supposedly contained Bush's Koerner painting. This one's also not Bush's painting:
Bush's painting did appear in the third story, the one titled "A Charge to Keep." This one's definitely Bush's Koerner:
So, to summarize: Bush's Koerner painting never appeared in a 1916 Saturday Evening Post story to illustrate a short story about a horse thief. It never appeared in a 1917 Saturday Evening Post story titled "Ways That Are Dark." It did appear in a story called "A Charge to Keep," published in Country Gentleman in 1918. Maybe that one is the story about a horse thief? I don't know yet, because I haven't read it. I'll read it and report back when I know for sure.
(all magazine images are mine, photographed from bound copies)