Political communication is a complex dance of symbols and code words, each having different resonance with different groups. Cowboy imagery is particularly useful because it's so culturally loaded, and yet so flexible. The man in the hat could be the new sheriff--read "tough." He could be a rancher-- read "independent." Or he could be an ordinary cowpoke -- regular folk like you and me, whittling away at his problems with the unthreatening genius of common sense.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with the West or cowboys as they actually were or are. With the possible exception of Will Rogers, can you think of a single working cowboy with national name recognition? Ever? Most of our famous cowpoke icons are fakes. Among them are Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz, in New York), John Wayne (born Marion Morrison, in Iowa), and, of course, Ronald Reagan (Hollywood actor and son of an Illinois shoe salesman).
Americans understand that it's all showmanship, just one more riff in our sometimes shallow but frequently entertaining political culture. Outsiders, though, are apt to read it differently. Western imagery doesn't play as well in the foreign press, where our leaders are often perceived as violent and heedless roughnecks who think they're the only law in town. In Europe -- perhaps only the "old" Europe -- politicians playing cowboy are regarded with the alarm and suspicion we reserve for suburban teenagers in gangsta’ gear. In less stable regions of the globe, the reaction to such posturing can be fear and rage.
And of course, they're right, too. The dignity and independence of the cowboy are all excellent qualities in the American character. Yet he also can convey less savory values that lead us to being misunderstood. The cowboy myth can include an antagonistic view of the world in which freedom and dignity are threatened on all sides.
Alone on the range, he is surrounded by hostile forces. He is threatened from one side by encroaching settlement and from another by the attendant restrictions of government and big business. Thus the Western hero shifts easily from sole defender of civilization to outcast from civilization, and the flip side of the cowboy is the outlaw anti-hero.
The West seems at times to represent the nation’s violent id, in opposition to the staid superego of the Eastern establishment. Just look at the degeneration in the character of the Western movie protagonist, from Gary Cooper's heroic loner in High Noon to John Wayne's tormented vigilante in The Searchers to William Holden's cursed killer in The Wild Bunch. In movies, it’s sometimes only a short hop from desperado to sociopath.
As in movies, so in life. In politics, there is a point at which symbolism -- that cloudy collection of illusion and swagger -- becomes destructive delusion. Just think of the influence of machismo on Lyndon Johnson's disastrous Vietnam policy.
That real-politicker and tenderfoot Henry Kissinger was not immune. In a well-known 1972 interview with reporter Oriana Fallaci, which he probably regretted, he said, "The Americans love the cowboy who comes into town all alone on his horse, and nothing else. He acts and that is enough, being in the right place at the right time, in sum a Western." The quintessential power-broker added, "This romantic and surprising character suits me because being alone has always been part of my style."
Sensibly, Ronald Reagan did his cow-punching on backlot nations that couldn't cause much trouble -- Panama, Grenada. These days, the stakes are much higher. In his "axis of evil" speech, George Bush's attempt to capture Reagan's rough-rider magic at its "evil empire" peak exacerbated a delicate situation. This is what happens when a leader starts acting on a mythic stage without consideration of the real one.
Cowboys, both mythic and real, rode into the West having little understanding of the complicated cultural, political, and environmental realities ahead. Perhaps we should consider that before we go a-riding full tilt into foreign lands. The native people there often seem to have self-fulfilling symbolic constructs of their own.
Mary Greenfield is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She recently received her master’s degree in Western history from the University of Montana in Missoula. Newly married, she freelances from Brooklyn, New York.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.