Helen Miers knew what Vladimir Putin didn’t.
When Helen visited George W. Bush on his spread in Crawford, Texas, she came prepared for a round of brush cutting.
Poor Vladimir. He took horseback riding lessons in preparation for his visit to the American president’s place. He thought he’d be doing a little loping around the ranch with Cowboy George: wind in his hair, the open range, tumbleweeds, yippee-yi-ay, yippee-yi-oh.
And why shouldn’t Mr. Putin expect such a session with cow ponies and corrals? Like many people, he had seen photos of the president in his Stetson hat and cowboy boots, squinting crinkled-eyed into the sun in classic western posture. And heck, ol’ George’s language is peppered with cowboyisms like “smoke ’em out” and “bring ’em on.”
What a disappointment it must have been for the Russian president! George W. doesn’t ride a horse around his Crawford ranch. George W. rides a pickup truck with four wheels–not four legs. He puts his feet on gas and brake pedals, not into stirrups.
President Bush’s cowboy image–and the extensive Crawford stage set which would put western film director John Ford to shame-was created by skilled public relations experts for presidential photo opportunities, not to run cattle.
Let’s go back for a minute to the first Cowboy President, Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy was the originator of cowboy imagery as a path to political power. In 1882 TR went West from New York as an wealthy Harvard graduate and came back as a seasoned cattleman who had survived blizzards and stampedes, as well as long, grueling hours in the saddle. Along the way, he carefully secured and promulgated photographs of himself in buckskins, Winchesters, Colts and bowie knives.
Roosevelt’s Cowboy imagery was sealed with the creation of the “Rough Riders,” his own cowboy-recruited Calvary unit which went to Cuba to fight in the over-hyped Spanish American War of 1898. The concept was further solidified in the graphic representations of the Rough Riders’ “Charge Up San Juan Hill,’ with mounted and uniformed cowboys on plunging stallions firing at the Spanish positions. These images appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines and the framed prints were popular additions to Victorian parlors. Teddy even had his own embedded reporter, Richard Harding Davis of the Hearst newspapers, to present the event in all of its glory to American readers.
The fact that the charge was on foot, on a different hill and included 1,250 Black soldiers in the attack along with Roosevelt’s unit was beside the point. Teddy Roosevelt had built himself into the imagery of the Cowboy, a man’s man for turn-of-the-19th century America and a presidential contender.
By 1900, the American cowboy was already well on his way to joining the Pilgrim, the Settler, and the Frontiersman in the growing pantheon of American mythological superheroes.
Although his actual reign was short-lived-roughly the era of the great cattle drives between the end of the Civil War and the 1890’s-from the beginning the Cowboy as fact and fiction became indistinguishable, due chiefly to the phenomenal growth of a new media form, the dime novel. Dime novels were the first cheap paperbacks for the masses and were cranked out of rotary presses at an exhilarating rate. Written and published in the East, the dime novels were fantasized accounts about Herculean heroics in the West by “cow-boys” with intriguing names like Deadwood Dick. Historical events and facts were completely skewed for the reader’s entertainment.
A year after Roosevelt went West, a famous Westerner went East.
“Buffalo Bill” Cody, Army scout and hunter (and dime novel hero), brought the first of his Wild West shows to big cities on the East Coast in 1883. These shows, which were part rodeo, part circus and part morality play, were colorful extravaganzas of western themes with casts of hundreds who could ride and shoot and reenact battles like “Custer’s Last Stand” at the Little Big Horn, even though cowboys weren’t involved.
The Wild West Shows and their imitators conducted successful world tours, portraying the fictional West and its idealized Cowboy before the crowned heads of England as well as commoners in Bavaria. The shows were the precursors to the thematic movies, the first of which to appear in the new film industry was the “Great Train Robbery” in 1903. The “Great Train Robbery” introduced many of the mythical elements of Cowboy ideology–good guys, bad guys, chases and gunfights-and was a blueprint for an incredible new cultural genre called the “Western,” which flourished for another seventy years.
The actors in Westerns became some of Hollywood’s biggest idols and box office money makers, from Tom Mix and Gene Autry to Gary Cooper and John Wayne. By the 1950’s, the idealized transfiguration of the Cowboy was complete.
Steely-eyed slayers of evil doers peered out from under ten gallon hats to an appreciative audience just about every night of the week during the hey day of the TV western. Bad guys beware! Lucas McCain had a tricked out Winchester. Josh Randall used a studio-invented “mare’s leg.” Wyatt Earp had a fanciful Buntline Special. Matt Dillon drew a long barreled Colt Single Action. They all came to the rescue of their communities by dealing out frontier justice, hot lead style. Bang! Bang! Bang! Problem solved. Who needed a sissified courtroom and all that legal paperwork when you had guys like this to take care of business?
Sooner or later, a politician or a handler would notice that most Americans ate this stuff up.
Political Cowboyism, for want of a better term, was particularly useful during the Cold War. What better symbol for the “leader of the Free World” than the Cowboy, the superhero of American individualism, honor and self reliance? He could sell millions of cigarettes, why not a few more presidents?
Some authorities regard Lyndon Johnson as one of the Cowboy presidents who successfully ran for office during the 20th Century, but LBJ’s political imagery did not include a lot of cowboy gimmickry or delivery. A genuine hard scrabble Texan, Johnson had spent years in Congress as a good old boy/ New Dealer which didn’t quite fit into the “I’m-just-here-to-help-out-ma’am” cowboy advertising shtick. The man who took that shtick and ran with it was Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan was doing a reprise of the Old Ranger on “Death Valley Days” when he ran for governor of California in 1966. Though he hadn’t acted in many Westerns and his notoriety was mainly based on being a TV shill for General Electric, Reagan fit the bill of the Cowboy Come To Judgment and won easily on a Law and Order campaign during an era of civil rights and antiwar disturbances. Somebody had to go down to Berkeley and clean out them law-breakin’ hippies!
So, in 1969, while ordering National Guard troops out to confront demonstrators in Berkeley, Governor Reagan announced in pure TV Cowboy fashion “if it takes a blood bath, let’s get it over with.” Young people were killed, maimed and gassed while the Old Ranger played his stern face in Sacramento. Matt Dillon couldn’t have done it better.
By the end of his second term as governor of California, Reagan and his handlers had their eyes on the White House and guess what: they bought a ranch! Reagan lost to Gerald Ford in 1976 but eventually came back to win in 1980, with photo op images of him swinging an axe and chopping wood on his ranch. Ronnie could actually ride a horse–it was a given for the Westerns he appeared in–but it was helpful for Republicans to parlay the Old Cowboy on the ranch with the Old Rail Splitter, Abe Lincoln. Lincoln ultimately disappeared in the Republican Party’s cynical pursuit of Southern voters. The Cowboy reigned supreme.
President Reagan could do the Aw-Shucks/Jimmie Stewart thing while being queried about attacking small countries like Libya and Grenada, and he could do the There-You-Go-Again/Gary Cooper thing over questions about Iran Contra or homelessness. For the many Americans, everything was OK; a nice old familiar cowboy was in charge. Sleep well; don’t worry about your wages disappearing. This malaise even carried his vice president, George H. Bush, to the presidency for one term.
With the return of Bill Clinton and the center-right Democrats to the White House for two terms, the Republicans had to find a contender for 2000 who was not an aging WWII veteran. What better choice than George W. Bush, the governor of Texas who had executed 152 prisoners, more than any other governor in American history? The problem was how to sell this guy, a New England fraternity boy who paraded himself as a Texas oilman, to the American public. What to do, what to do?
Taking a page out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook, the Bush apparatchiks came up with a plan to buy some acreage in Crawford, Texas while George W was still governor and create a Western backdrop for the presidential campaign.
George W. Bush was now a Rancher and, by extension, a Cowboy, so he could wear a cowboy hat for the photographers and use cowboy jargon.
However, there remained a problem for Bush’s handlers of presenting him to the media on his new ranch. What should he be doing, other than having barbeques and introducing his corporate pals?
The handlers had to be careful about the kind of work they designed for Bush lest he make a mess of it in front of a camera. Since he had apparently never done any physical labor in his life, his dexterity was questionable. For example, if you have ever seen Bush with a hammer in his hand, you would never trust him with an axe. Someone might get hurt. Other cowboy activities like riding and shooting could prove to be dangerous. He couldn’t ride a horse, and the public didn’t want a replay of Gerald Ford hitting people with golf balls, and Bush with a gun presented a similar scenario with fatal possibilities. So typical cowboyesque skills like riding, shooting, and chopping firewood were out.
Ultimately, someone came up with the image of George W Bush using a chain saw-a relatively easy to operate tool-which would provide some kind of action video for the president and the media. Thus, the American public has been treated to several years of videos of their president in shirt sleeves and cowboy hat dutifully cutting brush around his Crawford property and spouting carefully crafted sentences about erosion control and foreign policy: all the while projecting himself as a Cowboy come to straighten out the world.
Lost in all this one hundred years of advertising hype and political exploitation is the real Cowboy, the man who actually herded the cattle. If we study the diaries and first hand accounts of America’s Old West, instead of the dime novels, Wild West shows, Western movies and TV programs, a completely different Cowboy emerges.
For starters, one out of every three of the real cowboys was Mexican or African American, a fact not evident in almost all Westerns. Also, they worked collaboratively and were by necessity interdependent on the cattle drive. The archtype imagery of the “lone cowboy” is purely mythological. Now let’s hear about real cowboy life from an 1886 edition of the Trinidad (Colorado) Weekly News:
“Your outfit, or bed, clothing and equipments will cost you half of your earnings…you will be the saddle 12 to 18 hours a day, you will often suffer from want of food or wateryou will be sore and bruised, cold by night, scorched by day, you will expose yourself to some peril of life and more of limb.”
The real cowboys had a high injury rate, poor nutrition, infections and no medical care. They had no job security or no unemployment benefits yet they had to be skilled handlers of cattle and horses. They were essentially mounted migrant workers, following different herds, working for different owners. It’s no wonder that there was a cowboy strike in the Texas Panhandle in 1883 which was broken by the hiring of replacement workers.
Not all cowboys carried guns, but many of those who did mainly used them to make noise in handling cattle, shoot at snakes and drunkenly at each other. Most killings in the Old West were not done by raucous cowboys, but by gunmen hired by business interests to protect those interests. The children’s war game “Cowboys and Indians” is a misnomer. The genocide of the Native Americans was an organized program conducted largely by the Army, government functionaries, and settlers’ militias, not the gypsy-like cowboys.
It’s clear that George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan never spend a single hour living a real cowboy’s life. These two presidents remain black tie corporate mouthpieces, and when dressed up in cowboy clothes, ready for a spin on a rocking horse. The images of Aw Shucks Reagan and Smoke Em Out Bush are laughingly embarrassing when faced with the real McCoy. At least, for awhile, Theodore Roosevelt walked the walk.
All three presidents left smoking piles of civilian bodies in small countries–Roosevelt in the Philippines, Reagan in Central America, and Bush in Iraq–but in domestic policy, the latter day Republican presidents are as different from TR as day from night. Roosevelt’s legacy includes government regulation of business, preservation of the environment and a modicum of protection for consumers and workers. He possessed a limited but deep seated concept of the public good. In contrast, Reagan/Bush policies have enriched corporate powers at the expense of the public and the environment.
Cowboy imagery helped all three get elected president, but maybe Roosevelt’s years in the saddle with working class cowboys gave him an insight into the human condition that would forever escape the fake cowboy presidents.
DON SANTINA is a cultural historian whose articles on film, music, sports and the West have appeared in Counterpunch, the Black Commentator, Rebelion, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He can be reached at: Lindey89@aol.com