Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cowboy Presidents

Today in class we talked about the "Myth of the West" in art and how President Ronald Reagan made use of the cowboy myth in advancing a new narrative of America (and a new narrative of his presidency). George Bush has both used and been accused of playing with the same myths.

The on-line American Popular Culture discusses Bush and the cowboy myth this way: In an address to the nation, on March 17, 2003, George W. Bush declared, “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.” The ultimatum aroused a multitude of commentary in editorials and news articles that depicted George W. Bush as a cowboy sheriff who told outlaws to get out of town or face the consequences. On March 19, for instance, Reuters ran a story titled “High Noon for Cowboy Era” in which the lead sentence declared that, for Arabs, Bush's ultimatum was a throwback to the Wild West. Bush's language struck many observers as dialogue straight out of a Hollywood Western: "You have until sundown to git out of this town."

Eric Baard, writing for the Village Voice in 2004 offered a piece called "George W. Bush A'int No Cowboy." Here is an excerpt:

George W. Bush is a fake cowboy. From media accounts, you'd reckon that the president was a buckaroo to the bones. He plays up the image, big-time, with $300 designer cowboy boots, a $1,000 cowboy hat, and his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. He guns his rhetoric with frontier lingo, saying that he'll "ride herd" over ornery Middle Eastern governments and "smoke out" enemies in wild mountain passes. He branded Saddam Hussein's Iraq "an outlaw regime" and took the vanquished dictator's pistol as a trophy. As for Osama bin Laden, Bush declared, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West, I recall, that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.' " Britain's liberal newspaper The Guardian noted that "such language feeds the image overseas of Mr. Bush as a hopelessly inarticulate, trigger-happy cowboy." But liberals from both coasts and Europeans who derisively call Bush a "cowboy" foolishly insult not Bush, but one of America's prime ennobling myths. Instead of ridiculing the myth exploited by George W. Bush, they may want to measure him against it.

"The idea of the American cowboy is the direct lineal descendant of the chivalric knight," observes Bonnie Wheeler, a medievalist in cowboy country. "The only serious difference is that your status doesn't depend on your social class." Editor of Arthuriana, the journal of Arthurian studies, Wheeler teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Our president," she says, "is neither a knight nor a cowboy. He doesn't believe in taking care of the little guy, nor does he have the restraint or dignity of the cowboy."

Painting Bush as a latter-day cowboy is an idea that has been used by both Bush critics and fans alike. American Popular Culture notes that:
After September 11, 2001... and in the months leading up to the war with Iraq, commentators began to portray Bush as a sheriff in the Old West who would go it alone without a posse if need be in order to defeat what he saw as lawlessness and evil. Europeans, who would not join the posse to defeat the outlaw, were compared to timid saloonkeepers and shopkeepers, afraid to confront evil and afraid of the sheriff who might shoot up the town while getting his man. Eventually, the sheriff realized he had to ride out without a big posse. Tony Blair became Tonto to Bush's Lone Ranger and rode along to cover his boss's back.

Many columnists and public figures outside and within the U.S. used the cowboy myth to create a very negative image of George W. Bush as a blood-thirsty, trigger-happy loner. The love of the cowboy in the U.S., however, became a potent means of coalescing support for George W. Bush as a fast-acting, straight-shooting, brave president. The cowboy myth produced positive associations for segments of the U.S. public that held conservative views while the myth produced negative associations for segments of the public with more liberal views.


Maseeh M said...

Great Post, Doc OC

Really informative and interesting.

Sara D said...

Wow. I agree with Maseeh, this was very informative. I agree and understand how Bush could be portrayted as a cowboy, especially in the situation with Hussein. I also understand why Eric Baard referred to him as a fake cowboy. I see how he is spending all of this money would make him a fake cowboy, especially since Mr. O'Connor said during class he was from NY or something like that. I thought this quote by Wheeler was really interesting:"Our president," she says, "is neither a knight nor a cowboy. He doesn't believe in taking care of the little guy, nor does he have the restraint or dignity of the cowboy."
I think this is really ironic because I think that a president should be exactly what she is describing a knight and cowboy to be. They should look out for everyone, even minorities, and he should posess a lot of the qualities that cowboys have. They should be bold and have dignity and be bold, which a lot of Americans would probably argue that he is not.

Eli said...

the fact that george bush comes to chicago and says "nuclear" right and then goes to texas (where most of his endorsers live) and says it like they do, which is "NUKE-U-LUR"

another cowboy president, in literal sense, was Teddy Roosevelt (26, if you were wondering OC)He was a rough rider before got into office during the Spanish American War...and went on many adventures that nearly killed him.

Securing the panama canal was huge for him, and he did it by force. he sent nearly the entire naval fleet to the coast to give them indepence...he is a cowboy.

i think reagan likes the cowboy, rugged look..but he isnt a cowboy, like roosevelt was.

Harlesbarkly said...

It is really interesting what you are saying about the "cowboy president myth". But during the current election race who is the "cowboy"? Also, isnt there a myth that all are candidates are "model" citizens.In all the campaigns they try to make each candidate look like they are a perfect human being. But5 the fact is that no one is perfect. sorry for getting a little off topic

Zmalkin said...

This post is very intriguing to me..I think that the meaning behind different "cowboys" in our country are interesting

In America, the cowboy is always seen as the protagonist or "good guy". Weather it is through cartoons, movies, television shows, or books, a cowboy is referred to as America's hero.

I think that this relates to the westward movement through the idea of Manifest Destiny as said in the post. In this theory, it is our belief that the white settlers of the east have the god-given right to expand westward, becoming the stereotypical "cowboys" of the west. The simple idea that the previous people of the west(Native Americans) can be completely disreguarded in a quest for more power is mind-boggling to me.

To illustrate another point, I was watching the Dallas Cowboys game and noticed something very interesting. Throughout the entire game, the Cowboys were referred to as "America's Team". I found this to relate directly to the portrayal of the "cowboy" as the American Hero through the media.

I am sure that this is not the only example of the connotations and secret messages of the "cowboy". I believe that the media has and will continue to demonstrate the importance of the stereotypical "cowboy" in America.

Moira C. said...

i thought this was also a very interesting post. Cowboys are possibly the most "american" figure in history and so I think presidents believe that if they are cowboys they are automatically thought of as patriotic. I never thought about that before this discussion in class.