March 10, 2003

Bush gives cowboys bad image


My heroes have always been cowboys. I always wanted to be a cowboy — that is, I DID, at least, when I was a kid and we played “cowboys and Indians.” No way was I gonna be an Indian. No way was I gonna be one of those dirty, thievin’, murderous fiends I’d just seen on the big screen.

None of my friends would play the role either.

We had just been to the theater to watch a film in which the Indians had kidnapped and brutalized some poor, young, innocent waif from some little house on the prairie. Finally, in the end, the heroic cowboys in their clean, crisp clothes came to the rescue.

Cheering for cowboys

The whole theater cheered when those cowboys dealt the red devils a proper ass-kickin’. And the whole theater was packed with Indians!

But that was then — back when Indian people were a lot less certain of their collective identity. Back when Sicilians played Indians in the movies. Way back when I was a kid — even before the technological advancement of reality TV — when Indians were “bad.”

Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that we’re not “bad,” we’re just drawn that way.

But if you think some Indians might suffer from a severe case of identity crisis-osis, consider for a moment the poor cowboy.

Recently America, and in particular the U.S. war effort and even our fair president, has been accused of acting like a “cowboy.”

Western imagery

Certain European news reports have exclaimed, “Mon Dew! What out-of-control cowboys zees Americans are!” A recent New York Times article explains that the “major problem is Bush the cowboy.” 

Even American diplomats refer to Bush’s “cowboy imagery.” Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., agrees, saying that the U.S. must not “act like a unilateral cowboy” (which, I guess, is a cowboy who only uses one latigo).

All of this cowboy talk has spurred my sense of fairness into a gallop. Are we being fair to our actual, authentic lil’ boot-scootin’, rope-totin’, snuff-dippin’, doggie-wrasslin’ partners by labeling Bush a “cowboy?”

Not at all, says Deanna Duke Arbuckle, who writes “this president is no cowboy.”

With “Duke” in the very middle of her moniker, ya gotta think that she knows what she’s talkin’ about.

In a recent column in The Oregonian newspaper, Arbuckle, who is married to an actual retired cowpuncher (you mean they don’t just fade away?), writes that, a real cowboy “tends to his own herd and his own land. He mends his own fences. He never intrudes on his neighbor without an invitation. He makes a good neighbor …

“He minds his own business and wouldn’t tell the people next door how to live.” Unless they’re Indians, I think.

Anyway, that’s one opinion.

Andrew Bernstein, appearing in the same newspaper, seems to think Mr. Bush IS cowboy material, but that he needs to “cowboy-up.”

He writes: “The original cowboys were hard-working ranchers and settlers who tamed a vast wilderness. In the process, they had to contend with violent outlaws, as well as Native American tribes. The honest men on the frontier did not wring their hands in fear, uncertainty and moral paralysis; they stood up to evil men and defeated them.”

Personally, I think Mr. Bernstein be dishin’ out what most cowboys can easily avoid stepping in.

Compassionate heroes?

Were “real” Indians “evil men” to be “contended with?” Are “real” cowboys brutish, trigger-happy and reckless — or are they honest, compassionate heroes?

I don’t know — you tell me.

The only “real” cowboy I ever knew was Wally MacRae, and he was of the latter sort.


It’s been said that the times we live in often define our character.

I remember another time in our nation’s history when the U.S. demanded that another nation disarm or face annihilation. In December of 1890, when it was perceived by the government that the Lakota Sioux were developing weapons of mass destruction — the Ghost Dance — troops of the 7th Cavalry were sent in.

Conventional weapons — guns, knives, spears, clubs — were taken from the Indians, and then nearly every man, woman and child was gunned down by the army, littering the frozen landscape of Wounded Knee with hundreds of dead and dying.

Did the actions of the 7th Cavalry reflect the “cowboy imagery” of the times they lived in? Perhaps.

Is it time for us to redefine our nation’s collective identity, and refine our image of the “heroic” cowboy rather than promote the perception of the “reckless, murderous” one? I think so. Question is, are we older and wiser enough to do so?

I hope so.

Because I want to cheer for the heroes again.


John Potter’s Whatever column is published every other Saturday in The Billings Gazette. Readers may contact Potter at .

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