Fighting Words


Bush challenged by bovines.

To be reading the European press or visiting a European capital these days is to witness a strenuous competition. The competition, which is easy to enter but not at all easy to win, is to see how many times a person can get the word “cowboy” into an article or a speech. In normal times, an editor would probably limit the usage automatically, if only to avoid the vulgarity of repetition, but this quotidian rule is being relaxed these days. The term can appear any number of times as long as it is affixed to the proper name “Bush.”

On its own, the word “cowboy” is not particularly opprobrious. It means a ranch hand or cattle driver, almost by definition a mounted one, herding the steers in the general direction of Cheyenne and thus providing protein on the hoof. The job calls for toughness and has little appeal to the sentimental. A typical cowboy would be laconic, patient, somewhat fatalistic, and prone to spend his wages on brawling and loose gallantry. His first duty is to cattle, and he has to have an eye for weather. Unpolished, but in his way invaluable. A rough job but someone’s got to do it. And so forth.

The old children’s game of “cowboys and Indians” summarizes the association of the cowboy with the frontier and with the wars on the plains and ranges against the indigenous tribes. Actually, the cutting-edge work here was done with cavalry sabers, pox-blankets, repeating rifles, and other weapons of routine destruction. Yet the word “cavalryman” is as indissoluble from the concept of chivalry as the word “cowboy” is from the notion of the uncouth.

Still a third implication is that of the lone horseman, up against the world with nothing more than his six-shooter and steed and lariat. He might be a stick-up artist and the terror of the stagecoach industry, or he might be a solitary fighter for justice and vindicator of the rights of defenseless females. Henry Kissinger never quite recovered from the heartless mirth he attracted when he told Orianna Fallaci that Americans identified with men like himself—the solitary, gaunt hero astride a white horse (as opposed to the corpulent opportunist academic leaking to the press aboard a taxpayer-funded shuttle).

In England, “cowboy” is often used dismissively to describe a fly-by-night business or a shady or gamey entrepreneur, as well as anybody who, while making more noise and more claims than are good for him, is flaky when it comes to delivering the goods.

Finally, though Wyoming and Montana and other states are rich in lore, the word “cowboy” has a special relationship with the state of Texas, its “lone star” logo, and the name of its Dallas football team. (The laureate of the state and its cattle drives, Larry McMurtry, is oddly enough not considered by right-thinking people to be a hayseed or a gunslinger.) President Bush has played to this strength, if it is a strength, at least three times that I can think of. The first was when he admitted to having been a bit of a cowboy in his youth, in both personal and business terms. The second was when he called for the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden and made a point of stressing the old “Wanted”-poster words: “Dead or Alive.” The third was when he was asked about the murder of an Arab-American in Texas after 11 Sept. and remarked rather ominously that the perpetrator had “picked the wrong state” in which to commit this outrage. One could almost  see the noose snaking over the limb of the tree …

Boiled down, then, the use of the word “cowboy” expresses a fixed attitude and an expectation, on the part of non-Texans, about people from Texas. It’s a competition between a clichéd mentality (which would of course never dream of regarding itself as clichéd) and a cliché itself. How well—apart from some “with us or with the terrorists” rhetoric—does the president fit the stereotype?

To have had three planeloads of kidnapped civilians crashed into urban centers might have brought out a touch of the cowboy even in Adlai Stevenson. But Bush waited almost five weeks before launching any sort of retaliatory strike. And we have impressive agreement among all sources to the effect that he spent much of that time in consultation. A cowboy surely would have wanted to do something dramatic and impulsive (such as to blow up at least an aspirin-factory in Sudan) in order to beat the chest and show he wasn’t to be messed with. But it turns out that refined Parisians are keener on such “unilateral” gestures—putting a bomb onboard the Rainbow Warrior, invading Rwanda on the side of the killers, dispatching French troops to the Ivory Coast without a by-your-leave, building a reactor for Saddam Hussein, and all the rest of it.

In the present case of Iraq, a cowboy would have overruled the numerous wimps and faint hearts who he somehow appointed to his administration and would have evinced loud scorn for the assemblage of sissies and toadies who compose the majority of the United Nations. Instead, Bush has rejoined UNESCO, paid most of the U.S. dues to the United Nations, and returned repeatedly to the podium of the organization in order to recall it to its responsibility for existing resolutions. While every amateur expert knows that weather conditions for an intervention in the gulf will start to turn adverse by the end of next month, he has extended deadline after deadline. He has not commented on the eagerness of the media to print every injunction of caution and misgiving from State Department sources. The Saudis don’t want the United States to use the base it built for the protection of “the Kingdom”? Very well, build another one in a state that welcomes the idea. Do the Turks and Jordanians want to have their palms greased before discovering what principles may be at stake? Greased they will be. In a way, this can be described as “a drive to war.” But only in a way. It would be as well described as a decided insistence that confrontation with Saddam Hussein is inevitable—a proposition that is relatively hard to dispute from any standpoint. It’s true that Bush was somewhat brusque with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, but then Schröder is a man so sensitive that he recently sought an injunction against a London newspaper for printing speculation about his hair color and his notoriously volatile domestic life. What we are really seeing, in this and other tantrums, is not a Texan cowboy on the loose but the even less elevating spectacle of European elites having a cow.