Articles and retrospective TV specials surrounding the centennial of John Wayne’s birth last week reminded me of those folks who call George W. Bush and Republicans “cowboys,” and are dumb enough to think that’s an insult.
The cowboy, according to the side-saddle-riding elites, was a violent, sadistic, racist, environment-stabbing, Indian-hating, tobacco-chewing, beer-swilling, mouth-breathing, low-forehead lout. But the joke is on the latte-breath idlers who misjudge the cowpuncher (a few of whom, defense stipulates, may have deserved one or two items from the above list). There could not be a worse misreading of the cowboy myth, and by eyewitness accounts, a good deal of the reality.
The people who use “cowboy” as an insult, many of them elected officials, don’t seem to be aware that far more Americans like cowboys than like politicians. The country would probably be better off if W and other elected officials were more like the guys who flocked from all over the US of A, Europe, and other parts to take the low-paying, brutally hard job of punching doggies in the American West from about 1870 almost to the 20th century (yes, a short period in history for all that myth, but there it is).
They were a various lot, these cowboys, but most who observed them during that period reported that they tended toward reserved, courteous, quiet, uncomplaining, hospitable, trustworthy, forthright, fearless, tough, hearty, and loyal. They were smart and resourceful or they didn’t survive the pre-safety net West. They were able and willing to bear hardships and to work long hours under Spartan conditions (no time and a half for more than eight hours in a day — no mental health days). They expressed themselves economically, and often with a dry, earthy, and cynical humor.
Cowboys on the frontiers couldn’t hide behind convenient ideals and didn’t have much time for abstractions. They had to deal with what popped up. Evil — in the form of rustlers, rattle snakes, flash floods — had to be dealt with. It couldn’t be appeased. You couldn’t hold a seminar, a conference, a debate, or a sit-in. Often the dealing with required physical courage and violence. You can’t deconstruct a cattle stampede or a prairie blizzard.
Nuances were rare on the range. And the boys didn’t spend much time worrying about them when they popped up. To the extent that they dwelled on the generality of things at all they tended to the tragic view of life rather than to the current therapeutic. No one was getting in touch with his inner child. Whiners weren’t popular, nor were shirkers. These guys weren’t French.
The cowboy wouldn’t know risotto from creosote, and he often got a little wide and noisy when the cattle drive was over and he and his mates hit town again for the first time in weeks. Drinking too much was not unknown, and no one ordered lite beer. Not the sort of guy to liven up a meeting of Skull and Bones (though Lord knows they probably need livening up). And if The West Wing had been around back then, I don’t believe our lot would have watched it.
Probably none of these sturdy Americans could pass the Foreign Service exam. But taken all around, I wouldn’t trade one of them for the combined 2007 classes of the Ivy League, or for all the idlers you could round up from all the Starbucks in Cambridge and Berkeley.
If only W and the Republicans would earn their spurs.
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