January 19, 2005

A Charge To Keep

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I wouldn’t say the Cheney story on the front page of yesterday’s NYTimes was that heavy handed, but the accompanying photo (on page A16) sure was. 

The article (“Cheney Exercising Muscle on Domestic Policies”) details the powerful behind-the-scenes role the Veep plays in, well, just about everything.  And, in going out of their way to put Cheney’s influence in context, every person quoted in the article (Snow; Libby; Card; Lindsey; etc.) seemed to only reinforce just how “commanding” Dick Cheney really is. 

Under those terms, it’s not hard to analyze this photo.  Of course, Bush is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we see Cheney as the man behind the President.  Apparently, he’s also the man who can position that chair in any direction he sees fit.  Also, the President’s posse is seemingly in the service of #2.  Also, Cheney and McClellan look to be sharing a secret — like this is really the true order of things around the Oval Office.  (The sidewise shot of Card with that shifty eye gives the impression he’s in on it also.  And, the clipped head of the aide to the right of McClellan gives the impression still others are also in collusion.)  Of course, there’s also the fact the President’s desk is empty — except for the sunshine.  (Although, I must say, I’ve seen many photos of Bush’s desk in which little work seemed to be going on.) 

Like the second member of a tag team, the cropped version of the photo on the Times website seems to push the theme even further.  There, you just see Dick, the presidential flag, and the presidential chair.  Even more than in the full version, Dick has the situation well in hand. 

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(By the way, the reference to hands does not confine itself to the photograph.  In describing the Veep’s relationship with the president, Treasury Secretary John Snow says that Cheney  considers himself “an extra set of helping hands.”  Which is all the funnier because, later on in the story, it becomes apparent those hands reach all the way down the hall to Snow’s chair, as suggested by one reference to Cheney as “the de facto Treasury Secretary.”  …But hey, if he can do the #1 and #2 job, who says he can’t do them all?)

If you think we have done justice to this photo, however, I might say we have just gotten started.  For instance, did you notice the painting in the background (to the right of McClellan’s face)?  As Bill Allman, the curator of the White House explains, it’s called “A Charge to Keep” by W.H.D. Koerner, and it was lent to the President by a friend.

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From numerous accounts, Bush takes great pride in the photo and takes every opportunity to discuss it with people.  He even reused the painting’s title for the biography he wrote (okay, so maybe Karen Hughes penned it) for the 2000 presidential campaign.

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So how, you ask, does the painting relate to our Cheney coup?

Apparently, the title of the painting comes from a hymn written by Charles Wesley, having to do with the commitment the believer obligates to his God-given responsibilities. In Bush’s own words, he said:

“The painting, inspired by the hymn, pictures a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. The painting and hymn have been an inspiration for me and for members of my staff. ‘A Charge to Keep’ calls us to our highest and best. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.”

As the Presidential Prayer Team website elaborates (link):

In many hymnals, “A Charge to Keep” is associated with a Bible verse, I Corinthians 4:2: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” Mr. Bush chose the hymn to be sung at his gubernatorial inauguration, and asked the members of his staff to stop by his office to look at the painting, because it spoke of the common responsibility they shared as they served in government.

I’m not sure how it strikes you, but a photo depicting a presidential power grab in juxtaposition with a message of trust and faithfulness inspired by the Almighty couldn’t be more fantastic.  And the dynamics get richer from there.  For example, because these men all face the same direction, in the same general clothing and posture, the image conveys a uniformity and a harmony. 

That harmony is shattered however, by the horseman charging right to left.  And, where it might have seemed there was just one window in the room, throwing light on the President’s chair as if whatever was happening was as normal as the light of day, the painting — like a second window — offers the suggestion that something about this situation requires urgent attending to. 

The painting also changes the physical situation of the players.  At first pass, it seems Cheney possesses ultimate control.  He’s in the power spot, behind the President’s desk.  He also has everyone where he can see them, whereas he is free to operate behind people’s backs.  The painting undermines that position, however.  Not only does the horseman appear to be behind Cheney’s back, he’s operating at high speed completely outside Cheney’s awareness.

Of course, if the rider is Bush (given the President’s strong identification with the figure), maybe Dubya is not as entirely removed or naive as Cheney might assume.  On the other hand, that speed is a problem.  If that charging horseman wasn’t so continually manic or messianic, and didn’t always see the trail as so steep and rough, perhaps he could actually dismount and think a little more. 

Maybe then, he’d be less off the wall and more able to occupy the center of things.

(If you’re new to the blog and interested in more psychological comment on Bush, you might check here.)

(image 1: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times; image 2: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times; image 3: Painting, “A Charge to Keep”, Courtesy:Texas State Capitol via presidentialprayerteam.org; image 4: White House photo/Eric Draper on whitehouse.gov)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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