Lassoing Bush's reputation

Shortly after the war in Afghanistan began, I appeared on a Canadian TV show, in which a caller opined that George W. Bush was acting "just like John Wayne, just like a cowboy."

Now, I could, and maybe should, have pointed out that there's nothing wrong with acting like John Wayne, or for that matter, like a cowboy. Instead, I mumbled something about Mr. Bush having waited a month after Sept. 11 before beginning operations in Afghanistan, hardly a hair-trigger response.

"The Searchers," arguably the greatest American movie of the 20th century, was a Wayne vehicle. Other great Wayne westerns include "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "Rio Bravo." But people snicker when you defend the western genre, largely out of snobbery and ignorance, the same reasons the term "cowboy" inspires such contempt.

And cowboys were - and are, for those who remain - an integral part of American history, vital to the development of the Southwest and among America's most hardworking and underappreciated. And, like most things purely American, they were anything but, having roots elsewhere.

When Spanish conquerors in Mexico "hired" Mexican Indians to work on their ranches, much of the imagery we know was born - broad-brimmed hats (sombreros) to protect them from the sun, chaparejos (chaps) to protect them from cacti, la reata (which became a lariat) and, ultimately, the original idea of a brave man facing the elements. The vaqueros lived lonely lives and tended herds, as would the original American cowboys, the men who drove cattle to the railheads in Texas in the mid-19th century.

American cowboys were, like all things American, ethnically diverse - a fact perhaps not reflected enough in the picture we have of them. And, on the frontier of the time, a cowboy's enemies included not only nature but also Indians trying to protect their hunting grounds. A cowboy may have wanted to simply do his job and live in peace, but he rarely was granted that privilege.

In short, cowboys were not only not so bad, they were good. Think of some of the historical and cultural clichés one could aim at other nations. Let's start with my own people, Canadians. I would much rather be called a "cowboy" than a coureur de bois. The latter were unlicensed fur traders in 17th-century Canada, who stimulated the fur trade, but also helped deplete the beaver population and introduced liquor to our Indians. Their intentions may have been good, but....

And what of the French? What if everyone went around calling Jacques Chirac a "Jacobin," conjuring up images of beheaded members of the French aristocracy and people stabbed in their bathtubs? "Oh, Chirac, he's such a Jacobin," we could chuckle, as he uttered yet another condescending, anti-American comment, accompanied by an impressive Gallic shrug. Better yet, what if we called Mr. Chirac a "mime"? "Oh, that Jacques, there he goes, walking against the wind again!" Mind you, the idea that Chirac might actually stop speaking is unthinkable.

And Gerhard Schröder? Oy. I wouldn't know where to begin. We could call him a "Vandal," or a "Visigoth" or ... well, there are some 20th-century German stereotypes I can think of. But Silvio Berlusconi took care of that earlier this summer. So again, "cowboy" wins out.

What I like about Bush is the straight talking, the refreshingly open crankiness, the lack of pretense. Even when he mispronounces something, I find it infinitely preferable to the Clinton-era debate about the definition of "is" or of "sex." Bush may not be a scholar, but I suspect even a cowboy knows what both of those words mean. So when, in June, he suggested he would appoint a coordinator to "ride herd" on the Middle East peace process, and BBC commentators went wild, alternately mocking the president and calling his comment "patronizing," all I could think was, get along, little dogies! Do we not want someone keeping the herd in line along that trail to Middle Eastern utopia?

And perhaps the best defense George W. Bush could use against the Euro-snobs, and his own cowboy-phobic citizens, would be to say as much. "I'm a cowboy? And? What's your point?" Of course, if he did that, people would dismiss it as "typical cowboy talk."

Rondi Adamson is a frequent commentator in Canadian newspapers.

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