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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."
Children of Bush's generation grew up knowing of the Cowboy Code, which echoed the chivalric one. It was written by screen cowboy Gene Autry. In real life too, this lifelong Democrat was the kind of white-hat cowboy our president presents himself to be. Autry was the son of an itinerant cattle driver and horse trader in rural Texas and Oklahoma. He was a recreational small-aircraft pilot, but during World War II he paid for his own flight lessons on larger planes so he could serve in the Air Transport Command on the war front, instead of being stuck at a domestic base. Ultimately he flew explosive supplies (ammunition and fuel) over the Himalayas. A grateful U.S. Army bestowed a singular honor on Autry: He alone was allowed to wear his cowboy boots in uniform.
This is about more than having a big ranch. Like the knight, the cowboy is an ideal to which people aspire, Wheeler says, regardless of its mundane historical origins. And Autry's code still carries resonance in red states. Voters there, including the Wild West swing states of Colorado and Nevada, might want to think twice about returning a soft-handed wannabe to the White House. Here's how Bush stacks up against the Cowboy Code:
1 The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage. The doctrine of preemptive war, the centerpiece of Bush policy in Iraq and for the "war on terror," is one for the black hats. In 1902, five years before Gene Autry was born, Owen Wister's bestselling novel The Virginian elevated the cowboy to a national symbol. "It's not a brave man that's dangerous. It's the cowards that scare me," a card dealer observes early in the book. "I never like to be around where there's a coward. You can't tell. He'll always go to shooting before it's necessary, and there's no security who he'll hit." When the Virginian is forced into a climactic duel, the villain shoots first. Only then does the Virginian return fire and make a clean kill.
Though the Virginian continually countered dastardly deeds done by the villain Trampas, he always acted magnanimously when he had the upper hand. American Cowboy magazine asked its readers to explain why we still need cowboys, noting that, thanks to western movies, "for decades, folks of all descriptions have admired and tried to emulate him." U.S. Army Corporal Randy Melton of the 1st Cavalry Division replied from Baghdad, "If those guys who did all that crazy stuff to the 'terrorist POWs' grew up sitting on a horse instead of in front of a TV playing video games, maybe they would have conducted themselves with a little more dignity." Melton added, "Every time my platoon corralled a couple of 'bad guys,' it's easy to get angry with them. But we always treat them with dignity, whether they deserve it or not."
Unfortunately, the sadistic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the violations at Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan didn't start with a few young soldiers raised on Mortal Kombat. According to probes by the Army itself, it stems from specific policies crafted in the White House and carried out by Pentagon generals and consultants.
2 He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him. Soldiers commit their lives to the commander in chief's judgment and care. Bush sent them into a war of choice, not necessity, and one based on misleading rhetoric, and they landed in Iraq without so much as enough sets of body armor to shield them. At the same time, he pushed to cut soldiers' pay and cut veterans' benefits. The Bush administration has also extended terms of service, effectively drafting soldiers who've already done their duty.