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Most Americans don’t make a habit of waking up in the morning, heading straight outside to shoot wild game and then frying up moose burgers. Nevertheless, in this electoral season it has become obligatory for politicians to defend hunters and their so-called “way of life.” Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential pick, is but the latest example of this most barbaric and retrograde of American political traditions.
A woman from an exceedingly macho state, Palin takes pride in her hunting skills. She has even gone as far as taking her daughter out with her on caribou shooting expeditions. In passing on the hunting lifestyle to her daughter, Palin is merely following in the footsteps of her father who in turn took her as a child to hunt moose. What is the governor’s favorite food? That would be moose stew, of course! A longtime member of the National Rifle Association, Palin once proudly announced that her freezer was full of wild game.
No friend to wild animals, Palin has offered incentives for people who kill wolves in an effort to boost Alaska’s predator control program which so far has failed to meet expected numbers. The incentives include offering 180 volunteer pilots and aerial gunners $150 in cash for turning in gruesome legs of freshly killed wolves. Outraged by Palin’s predator control program, environmentalists have argued that bounties have no place in modern wildlife management.
By picking Palin as his running mate, John McCain helps to shore up the macho, frontiersman constituency. The Arizona Senator is hardly an avid hunter and has had a rocky relationship with the National Rifle Association. During a speech before the group in May, McCain sought to soothe sore feelings by portraying the Democrats as a common enemy. “They claim to support hunters and gun owners,” he said. “If… Sen. Obama is elected president, the rights of law-abiding gun owners will be at risk.”
Mitt Romney: Seeking to Prove Varmint Credentials
It’s not the first time that the issue of hunting has come up in the presidential campaign. During the primaries Mitt Romney was keen to emphasize his hunting credentials and erase the perception that he was some kind of effeminate easterner. “I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life,” he remarked in New Hampshire. “I’ve never really shot anything terribly big,” Romney said. “I used to hunt rabbits. Shooting a rabbit with a single-shot .22 is pretty hard, and after watching me try for a couple of weeks, (my cousins) said, `We’ll slip you the semiautomatic. You’ll do better with that.’ And I sure did.”
The next day however, the Romney campaign said the former Massachusetts governor had gone hunting just twice — once as a teenager in Idaho and in 2007 with GOP donors in Georgia.
But then Romney explained that it was his staff that had gotten it wrong and that he had indeed hunted rabbits and other small animals for many years, mainly in Utah. Taking a “second shot” at the issue, Romney said “I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve made that very clear. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will. I began when I was 15 or so and I have hunted those kinds of varmints since then. More than two times.”
Huckabee Hunts For Votes in Iowa
By waffling, Romney fell right into Mike Huckabee’s trap. Speaking on Face the Nation, the former Arkansas governor said Romney was wrong to suggest he was a lifelong hunter and that his opponent’s comments strained credibility. “I think it was a major mistake,” Huckabee said. An avid outdoorsman, Huckabee had hunted for twelve years, mostly ducks, deer and turkeys.
“It would be like me saying I’ve been a lifelong golfer because I played putt-putt when I was 9 years old and I rode in a golf cart a couple of times. I think American people are looking for authenticity. Match their record with their rhetoric.”
Hoping to cultivate that “authentic” image, Huckabee took an hour and a half to hunt pheasant eight days before the Iowa caucus. Flanked by about a dozen reporters, the former Arkansas governor wore a microphone from CNN as he went shooting with Dude, his 3-year-old bird dog, and Chip Saltzman, his campaign manager, at his side.
In the first half hour, Huckabee, Saltzman and a friend shot three birds. Their last shot flew over the heads of reporters, one of whom cried out: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Don’t shoot. This is traumatizing.” Moments later when Huckabee took a break, a reporter yelled out: “Who are those birds? Romney? Thompson?” “Well,” Huckabee responded, “these three birds all said they would not vote for me on caucus day. You see what happened?”
Connecticut Indoorsman and Lone Vegan
Traditionally the Democrats have not gone as out of the way to court the gun-toting, hunter crowd. During an interview with grist.com, an environmental Web site, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd was asked “Are you an outdoorsy fellow? When you’re not in the halls of Congress or on the campaign trail, do you like to escape to the natural world?”
Dodd responded, “No. I don’t try to pretend I’m something that I’m not. But I live right on the Connecticut River, I have for 26 years, and the lower Connecticut River Valley is one of the most wonderful environmentally sensitive areas in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful. We do a lot of fishing in that lower valley area. But I don’t pretend to be a great hunter.”
Needless to say, Dodd went on to drop out of the presidential race after the Iowa caucus when he placed seventh.
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich hardly did much better than Dodd during his own quixotic campaign for the White House. Kucinich has pressed for stronger regulation of pain and distress in animal research, has worked to help protect whales from harmful navy sonar and supports rural sanctuaries to protect farm animals. As early as 1995 he became a vegan and is currently the only vegan member of Congress.
Such progressive stances notwithstanding, Kucinich did not do well in the primaries and withdrew from the race in early 2008.
Hunting Exotic Prey in New Mexico
New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a good shot who had the prey to prove it, did slightly better than Dodd and Kucinich. Ever since 2004 Richardson had taken up hunting and fellow outdoorsmen praised the governor’s skills.
Relaxed in his Capitol office and dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a silver bolo tie with turquoise — Richardson told the Associated Press that he began hunting because he “wanted to go one step beyond” the skeet shooting he’d done in the past. With skeet, clay targets are flung into the air at different angles.
The politician had bagged traditional game such as elk and turkey but also stalked the exotic: he shot an oryx, a long-horned antelope native to Africa, during a guided outing in 2005 on a New Mexico ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner. Richardson said it was his most memorable hunt.
The governor downed the oryx with one shot from at least 100 yards. He had the oryx head mounted and kept it in a downstairs room at the governor’s mansion. Richardson’s other hunting trophies are displayed in the building: a set of bull elk antlers and a stuffed wild turkey.
And what happened to the elk meat? “We ate it — at the mansion,” said Richardson.
Richardson owns a 12-gauge Browning over-and-under shotgun, which he uses for hunting birds including quail and dove. He borrows rifles to hunt big game such as elk, deer and the oryx. During campaign appearances, Richardson proudly mentioned how he had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
Early during the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Richardson aired a TV commercial filled with western images. The ad opened with New Mexico landscapes and included scenes of Richardson hunting with two other people and riding horses with his wife, Barbara.
Being Macho in a Man’s World
Once Richardson exited the race three contenders were left in the race: John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Edwards hunted when he was young and grew up in rural areas where owning a gun was part of a way of life. In an interview with the Associated Press Edwards said he grew up hunting deer, rabbits and birds but didn’t hunt any longer. “I think it’s important for us to respect the right to own firearms and to use them for protection,” he said. “I don’t think, though, that it means anybody needs an AK-47 to hunt.”
Edwards didn’t seem to connect as well culturally with poor whites as hunter Mike Huckabee. Once the former North Carolina Senator was out of the race, Clinton sought to court hunters by playing on her own personal history. By February, having already been roundly defeated by Obama in a slew of primaries, she told a crowd pleasing tale about shooting a duck when she was Arkansas First Lady.
“I’ve hunted. My father taught me how to shoot,” she told a crowd at the Labor Temple in rural northern Wisconsin. “I remember standing in the cold water. It was so cold, you know, at first light. I was with a bunch of my friends, all men. And they all were playing a trick on me, and said, ‘We’re not going to shoot, you shoot,’ cause you know what they wanted to do. They wanted to embarrass me. So the pressure was on. So I shot, and I shot a banded duck.”
Clinton lost the Wisconsin primary but continued to hark on the hunting issue.
“I disagree with Senator Obama’s assertion that people in our country cling to guns and have certain attitudes about trade and immigration simply out of frustration,” she began, referring to the Obama comments on small-town Americans that set off a political tumult.
She then introduced a fond memory from her youth.
“You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught be how to shoot when I was a little girl,” she said. “You know, some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It’s part of culture. It’s part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it’s an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter.”
Obama on Animal Rights
Unlike much of the Republican field and some of the Democratic contenders, Obama has shown a bit more compassion towards animals. During a candidate’s town hall meeting outside Las Vegas, a woman shouted out at Obama, “What about animal rights?” Obama responded that he cared about animal rights very much, “not only because I have a 9-year-old and 6-year-old who want a dog.”
Obama added that he sponsored a bill to prevent horse slaughter in the Illinois state Senate and had been repeatedly endorsed by the Humane Society. “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other,” he said. “And it’s very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.”
To his credit Obama has not gunned down animals with television crews in tow, as in the case of Mike Huckabee. Nevertheless the Illinois Senator supports the right to hunt wild game.
In April 2007 he said: “I don’t hunt myself, but I respect hunters and sportsmen.”
Hunting and the American Psyche
Needless to say hunting in American politics is hardly a new phenomenon. In Rough Rider in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Desire, Sarah Watts writes:
“In 1885, returning East after a bighorn hunting trip to Montana, Roosevelt had another studio photo made. This time he appeared as a self-consciously overdressed yet recognizable Western cowboy posed as bold and determined, armed and ready for action. ‘I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom,’ Roosevelt wrote, ‘for I am very fond of hunting, and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling, limitless prairies, rifle in hand.’ Though himself a New Yorker, Roosevelt enjoyed demeaning the tame outdoor pastimes of Easterners. He preferred his Western life of wild horses, wild terrain, and wild game to Eastern foxhunting, he wrote in 1884 to Lodge, an Eastern patrician and foxhunter. Western hunting required natural buckskin shirts, rifles, and rugged cow ponies, Roosevelt said, rather than tailored red coats worn during scripted jumps over fences chasing a ground-dragged scent. ‘A buffalo is nobler game than an anise seed bag,’ and one could kill buffalo only in the West. In 1883, when he had killed his first buffalo, Roosevelt spontaneously danced a ‘war dance’ that he repeated thereafter in a lifetime of famous hunting. In the aristocratic gentility of the hunt club, no member would ever have allowed himself such freedom.”
It’s remarkable to consider that more than a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt donned his cowboy outfit politicians are still falling all over themselves to prove their backward and retrograde hunting credentials. On the other hand, with the entrance of Sarah Palin into the presidential race the country has the opportunity of holding a long overdue debate about hunting and animal rights in wider U.S. society. Unfortunately, the media seems more intent on talking about the Alaska Governor’s pregnant daughter.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)