I’ve been unwilling to saddle up the presidential cowboy analogies for some time–Dubya too easy of a target–but THANK ALL THAT IS COWPOKE for recent presidential candidate news.
Barack Obama resists the cowboy hat–all I can see him as is the lawyer/Dude from a big city, or maybe as a laid-back (yet pistol-packing) James Stewart in Destry Rides Again, if the senator from Illinois is able to put away the bad guys with Stewart’s aplomb. Yet it becomes difficult to ignore the pungent smell of Western Mythos when pundits connect the dots of presidential, public, and popular appeal.
It has come to pass that Obama’s “Yes We Can!” is not enough to draw the public into the new day, while McCain’s “Drill here and drill now” is.* While the Democratic candidate continues to stride along into the future in his lanky (yes, James Stewart-like) way, his messages are coming under fire for their subtlety, or their ambiguousness, or their vagueness, or their wiffle-waffleness–depending on your POV.
Charles M. Blow of the New York Times opines thus in the August 28, 2008 Op-Ed section:
Lately, you’ve demonstrated an unsettling penchant for overly nuanced statements that meander into the cerebral. Earth to Barack: to Main Street America, nuance equals confusion. You don’t have to dumb it down, but you do have to sum it up.**
I have to agree, even though I appreciate shades of gray, because when you’re a working Joe or Joette and you have little time between the 9 to 5, kids, and having to do things like negotiate with city and state and country to make sure your basic human right of shelter doesn’t get yanked away (…where was I? Oh yeah…), you don’t have the time or energy to pore over the voting history of the candidates, their platforms, and the ins and outs of issues facing your community. You tend to go to the summary, and if it’s a well-crafted bit of razzle-dazzle, then it sticks in your mind as much as Starship’s horrid “We Built This City” has been clogging up my synapses the past two days.***
Blow continues, and–saddle the horse–up rises the allure of the Cowboy in his glory.
For example, your [Obama’s] performance at Rick Warren’s faith forum came across as professorial and pensive, not presidential. McCain was direct and compelling. Your initial response to the crisis in Georgia was tepid and swishy. McCain was muscular and straightforward.
I’d prefer a muscular, straightforward cowboy! But then I recall that similar epithets were thrown at Stewart’s Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., when he arrived in town of Bottleneck to bring back law and order. Looking more like a shopkeeper than the dead-eye shot he is, he is ridiculed and ribbed and compared incessantly to the example of his father, a famous tough-guy lawman. But the perception of being a milquetoast has been carefully crafted by Destry a.) to trick the black-hat wearing bad guys and b.) because he really doesn’t believe that violence is the right path to law and order.
I’m going to assume that Obama isn’t a trickster, and so what is left is his desire to find a world order founded on mutual respect and communication, as well as his embodiment of this: on good days nuance and on bad days wishy-washyness. Is that appealing to Americans? We’ll see on Election Day, but signs are pointing to “no.” Why?
Blogger CNULAN describes the American public’s cowboy-wish in the blog Subrealism, in a summary (I do love an undumb sum-up) of an article in the American Spectator. Apparently, for reasons of security–and I’m talking about deep-down “reptilian” limbic brain kind of security–Americans vote for a world leader who will respond to situations with his (or her) gut. Countless westerns glorify this shoot-from-the-hip approach, and as a consequence or as a reason, to an American, having presidents who are called “cowboy” (from TR, to RR, to GWB) is a positive thing. Defining the allure of the Cowboy thus, it looks as if McCain is the next Decider.
But will Obama’s choice of sidekick, Biden, bring the requisite straight-shooter-ness to the Dems? Biden’s words tend to get him into trouble, which might be a sign that he calls a spade a spade****, a well-known attribute of of the Cowboy. Or that he is brash and impetuous, ditto. I can’t say whether Biden looks good on an ATV rounding up cattle, but this pithy running mate could lead to a line of White House-themed Barack Obama cowboy boots, western yoke shirts, and fancy ten-gallons.
In absence of personal knowledge, I’ll follow the lead of the rest of America and use the Cult of the Cowboy to divine the future. I’ll turn to Destry Rides Again, because once you start on a trail, you have to follow it to its end.
In Destry Rides Again, Stewart’s lawman stays his pacifistic course until he is pressed into taking up the gun by a dastardly deed-doer who threatens to upset the order of Bottleneck. Marlene Dietrich dies in his arms after taking the bullet meant for him, but still the ending is upbeat–Destry has righted the world (after seizing the power that was always his own–see discussions about this moment in Sixguns & Society: A Structural History of the Western and in a Cowboylands post*****). Yes, he “drill[s] [the bad guy] here, drill[s] [him] now.”
Take heart, fans of subtlety.
Despite the typical oater showdown, if this 1939 classic is on a best-of-westerns movie list, it is accompanied by other “nuanced” westerns, such as High Noon, Ride the High Country, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. These films are notable because their writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors have not only produced great entertainment but have also artistically shown the high price of cowboy-like actions, layering messages that both praise and condemn what is an integral part of the American psyche. These films are more powerful than their simpler, less complex comrades. They have won more accolades, provoked more questioning. They are better movies.
If Americans want the Cowboy (and they do in the silver screen/pulp sort of way, not in the job’s gritty reality), they still have a choice.
Tom Destry Jr.: Well, you will fool ’em, Wash. We’ll fool ’em together.
Washington Dimsdale: The only way to do that is fill ’em full of lead.
Tom Destry Jr.: No, no, no, what for? You shoot it out with ’em and for some reason or other, I don’t know why, they get to look like heroes. But you put ’em behind bars and they look little and cheap, the way they oughta look. —Destry Rides Again, directed by George Marshall, 1939
* accompanied by the roar of cheers and whistles and rumbling hogs at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. His speech was probably squeezed between Kid Rock’s concert and the infamous beauty pageant. Hard to believe those chopper-riding tough guys would be agog over a khaki-and-loafer wearing rich guy, but times change. Click here to watch this priceless video.
** Note the awesome use of catchy internal rhyme: dumb/sum. Even I will be able to remember it.
*** The horror. I’ve been waking up with it in my ears. My only consolation is that it’s been rated as the worst song ever by Blender.
**** That’s the last metaphor. I promise.
*****Always wanted to be in the same sentence as this seminal book. Does it matter if I’m the one writing the sentence?