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.
On the home front, the Bush administration has used the Patriot Act to prune back the very liberties he swore to uphold and protect.
3 He must always tell the truth. Ersatz cowboy George W. Bush hasn’t. The two key issues facing America today are the war and the economy. He misled the nation into the Iraq war with false claims of imminent danger. He promised that his tax cuts wouldn’t result in deficits and then said deficits would be “small and short term.” The federal deficit is now enormous, estimated at over $400 billion, and looks likely to last years.
4 He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals. Children are being ground under the heels of those fancy boots. Bush is relaxing safeguards against the neurotoxin mercury, which is particularly dangerous to the growing brains and nervous systems of fetuses and children, and the Clean Air Act has been stripped of key provisions to control coal-fired power-plant emissions known to cause respiratory illnesses like asthma.
The number of children living in poverty has risen, yet he proposes in his 2005 budget to freeze funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Head Start’s budget would also be frozen, and the $247 million Even Start literacy program would be eliminated. More children will be left behind. Budgets for a host of other education programs would be frozen, cut, or eliminated by Bush’s proposals.
“This administration wants to require low-income mothers to work more hours to receive benefits,” says Bethany Little of the Children’s Defense Fund. “What exactly is going to happen to those children is a mystery to us.” She adds, “I don’t think there’s anything gentle about denying children child-care access, early-childhood education in high school, good public schools, living wages for families, and standing health care.”
As for the elderly, Bush is catering to his religious-right constituents by blocking stem cell research to fight Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. His efforts to privatize Social Security put most seniors’ pensions at risk. And he has also hampered efforts to legalize cheaper generic drugs and pharmaceutical imports from Canada.
“The Medicare Drug Bill was a lucrative deal for pharmaceutical companies,” says Susan Murany, executive director of the Gray Panthers. “We didn’t consider it a win for consumers at all, we considered it a win for drug companies.”
When it came to animals, the Virginian rued the pain the cattle industry inflicted on the beasts, even before the age of industrial farming. He delivered a beat-down to a man who was ruthless with “hawses.” He “gentled” his own horses for riding and took care of a mentally disturbed chicken. Really. Bush, on the other hand, enjoyed putting firecrackers inside living frogs and tossing them into the air when he was a boy.
Now that Bush is an adult, he and his appointees haven’t proposed adding a single species to the “endangered” list. And his approach to natural habitats has been “disastrous,” says Brad DeVries of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. “The needs of wildlife go by the wayside when they get in the way of energy development, logging, or mining.”
Perhaps most galling, DeVries says, is the Bush administration proposal “to allow the importation of endangered animals and their body parts as hunting trophies and zoo animals and other uses.”
Ron Reagan Jr. summed it up nicely in a TV discussion last year. Describing Bush Jr.’s faux-cowboy lifestyle, the son of the late cowboy actor-turned-president remarked, “You know, George Bush sallies forth in his pickup truck to go torment small animals.”
5 He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas. At this moment, Bush operatives are working to keep blacks off the voter rolls in Florida. And since 9-11, Bush has used language that evokes the Crusades.
“There’s a seismic gap between some of the president’s very needed symbolic acts and initiatives on the street,” says C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and a Baptist pastor in Monroe, Louisiana. Gaddy cites the broad sweeps that jailed Muslim immigrants and statements by Attorney General John Ashcroft asserting the superiority of Christianity.
“One of the surprising things to emerge,” Gaddy notes, “was that the president met with conservative Christians about the preemptive strike on Iraq but refused to meet with bishops of the Methodist church because they didn’t support it. Same with the National Council of Churches.”
Bush and Dick Cheney also tried to draft conservative Christian denominations into their re-election bid by suggesting that congregation membership rosters be used for political mailings.
6 He must help people in distress. AIDS is ravaging nations across the globe; more die each year than Osama bin Laden could dream of killing. Yet the Bush administration blocks from its aid programs vital, World Health Organization–approved generic drugs made in the developing world that cost one-fifth as much as the drugs produced by the big pharmaceutical manufacturers. Critics say Bush’s budget slashes U.S. funding for the Global Fund (to fight AIDS and other infectious diseases) by 64 percent.
7 He must be a good worker. Even the Virginian hit the books, albeit to impress a pretty schoolteacher. But Bush, though he married a librarian, is famously incurious. By the time he’d served three years in office, he’d taken more vacation days than Bill Clinton took in eight. Those days in Texas (mostly in Crawford, a comfortable Waco suburb and not a hardscrabble frontier) took up more than 40 percent of his term—until 9-11. Bush was on his suburban ranch, the 9-11 Commission noted, when he received notice that Osama bin Laden was coiling to spring an attack upon the U.S.
Part of a cowboy hero’s work ethic is that he “always gets his man.” But Bush interrupted the hunt for bin Laden to invade Iraq, where he hauled in Saddam Hussein.
8 He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits. In Bush’s 2000 campaign, he said to running mate Cheney, “There’s Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from The New York Times.” More recently, it was rumored that after Cheney’s infamous “Go fuck yourself” to Senator Pat Leahy, the born-again Christian Bush joked at a cabinet meeting, “Fuck ’em all!”
9 He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws. The apple fell far from the tree; Bush’s mom is pro-choice. But, as documented by the National Organization of Women, regressive Bush policies threaten abortion rights, Title IX sports, and affirmative action. His economic policies have hurt the livelihoods and security of working women and their families. Radical-right Supreme Court appointments in his second term could make things worse for decades.
Not that his attitude toward women is a surprise. In his twenties he was known as a “cuntsman,” and one recollection of his days at Yale is that, according to The Guardian (U.K.), “He walked up to a matronly woman at a smart cocktail party and asked, ‘So, what’s sex like after 50, anyway?’ ”
Bush’s only real black mark, as far as obeying laws, is a fine for drunken driving in Maine, but his administration is run through with corruption and insider privileges.
10 The Cowboy is a patriot. George W. Bush didn’t fight in the jungles of Vietnam, nor did he fight in the streets to end that waste of lives. Instead, he used his father’s connections to land a safe position in the National Guard and even then shirked his duty.
Dian Malouf, a native of “brush country” and author of Cattle Kings of Texas, is chronicling the last of the cowboys for a photo book due this winter called Seldom Heard. Like other Texans, she knows that state residency doesn’t confer cowboy status.
“I’m in Midland lots, and I haven’t seen a Midland cowboy yet,” she says, speaking of the wealthy oil town where Bush was raised. “Bush and Cheney are not cowboys by any stretch of the imagination. Cowboys are silent types, remote but genuine, with serious integrity and caring. They are a bit rough and work hard, and they don’t want to call attention to themselves the way George W. Bush kind of does. I know and admire and respect cowboys.” She adds, “Wearing boots does not make someone a cowboy.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2004