Posts tagged ‘cowboy diplomacy’

April 9, 2010

Finally, Obama's a Freaking Cowboy Already

by cowboylands

I read Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent words with a dizzying feeling of deja vu. Wait–wha?–we’re cowboys again?

“American materialist politicians, whenever they are beaten by logic, immediately resort to their weapons like cowboys,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech before a crowd of several thousand in northwestern Iran.

Interesting that our statesmanlike leader–intellectual to the point of at-times dismaying distance and wafflement–is being called a lowdown, dirty cowboy. Who knew that Ahmadinejad had such a grasp on Western frontier history? His use of the term “cowboy” is historically accurate. Before the days of John Wayne, cowboys were the ruffian types. They were the thugs that Wyatt Earp despised, none other than–hold on to your ten-gallon hat–the Democrats, a populist group at odds with the Republican bankers and railroad magnates.

We’re talking the kind of nineteenth-century American history that heavily mustachioed novelists and Americana experts adore. Iranian schooling must be incredibly cosmopolitan.

But that’s not all, folks.

Ahmadinejad then throws in an awesome shoutout to spaghetti westerns, referencing the trash talk the Spanish-speaking villains growled at Clint’s Man with No Name (you know, when the lips move but the dubbed-in voice doesn’t quite match up).

“Mr. Obama, you are a newcomer [to politics]. Wait until your sweat dries and get some experience…. [American officials] bigger than you, more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

I am in awe. Ahmadinehjad must know for a fact that Americans of a certain age, suckled on the celluloid milk of Hollywood westerns, would look to strap on guns and, like Kurt Russell in Tombstone, tell him to “skin that smoke wagon” and then bitchslap the eff out of him.  (Check out minute 2 on of this fine piece of Americana.)


The problem is with the Iranian president’s ploy is twofold.

A.) Most rational politicians with foreign policy experience know that bitchslapping leads to missile crises.

B.) Most rational Americans understand that Hollywood takes the truth out of history to make exciting stories with lots of shooting and happy endings.

I hope we have a president who fits this profile.

And an aside on the historical Wyatt Earp:

Sure the skanky cardshark in the bar had it coming to him,  but Earp was looking to a.) take his place as a dealer, b.) ingratiate himself with the local Republican moneybags in town, and c.) make a living and a name for himself. What history shows is that Earp isn’t so different from most Americans–just wanting to get ahead, earn a nest egg, have a wife and kid and house, etc, etc. In the days before Social Security and Medicare, you were on your own; I can’t blame the guy for being ambitious and looking out for himself. But let’s not make him into a figure worthy of hero worship, shall we? Mr. Ahmadinejad, kudos to your knoweldge of Western history, but may I suggest some movies for further research into the American love/hate relationship with the macho cowboy image? The Searchers, is what I recommend.

Any others?

November 5, 2008

I Heart the Obama Kid

by cowboylands

The Kid is in. The Great Decider is out–and so are slimy campaign innuendos. I’ll not be sorry to hear the last of the slander of the good Maverick family name. I’ll not be sorry to have less of cowboy-diplomacy-this* and cowboy-foreign-policy-that drop into my inbox with such alarming regularity. And I won’t be surprised if this James Stewart-esque president-elect (see Wanted: Cowboy Presidents) learns to appropriate a little more of the cowboy attitude to lead this nation. So I have a few cowboy wishes for him. 

May his hat always be wide enough.

May he never step in horseshit.

May his belt buckle never get bigger than his head.

May his boots never pinch.

May he never say the word “maverick.”

May he never have to pull the six-gun from the holster.

May the horse he rode in on be a sturdy mount for the next four years.

Happy virtual trails!

* Darn, what the heck is everyone going to do with 100 of these? 

September 13, 2008

Gunlock; or, From Cowboy to Taxi Driver

by cowboylands

In times of moral confusion, I turn to my collection of a gajillion western paperbacks from the 1940s and 1950s*. Their bold colors and bolder titles (such as Action by Night, Gunsmoke Justice, Dig the Spurs Deep) bring me back to my center. Good/bad. Right/wrong. Yes/no. 

The one-two punch of pulp writers, who must have banged these out on typewriters by the fistful, combined with the powerfully graphic work of the artists, always tell me that I can be as tough as their cowboy heroes. At least in my imagination.**


 Gunlock, by Wayne D. Overholser

cover illustration by Robert Stanley

Dell Paperbacks, 1956

from the collection of es

Gunlock, by Wayne D. Overholser, has a remarkably prosaic voice, given the usual purple prose of these western romances-for-men.

When  I got my eyes on Dillingham, he was bending over, reaching for his .45 with his left hand. I shot him. He fell, and I fired again. 

Not exactly blood-stirring, yet somehow this author got ‘er done and won two Silver Spur awards from the Western Writers of America. And the New York Times review for this book was “Grade A.” Oh, and Hoofs and Horns (???) called it “right out of the top drawer.”

Using the “I” of first person was also unusual; most westerns rely on the reader seeing the hero as god–the “he” of third person setting the hero apart from common mortals. A reader could be like writer Ernest Haycox’s moody protagonist, but not be him. In Gunlock, the reader is the vengeance-driven hero-next-door, who is about as matter-of-fact as a cab driver.*** Which pulls me right away to the incomparable Taxi Driver, about a young man-next-door who, driven by vengeance (and driving a cab), gives a rather nihilistic view of the self-aware and moral individual and his/her place in the world. 

In 1956 the protagonist of Gunlock instinctively does what’s right (shooting from the hip!), cleaving his way through good and bad, straightforward and twisted, until he gets vengeance on the bad guys, gets a spread, and gets the girl. Travis Bickle of Martin Scorsese’s film, twenty years later, also does what he does instinctively, getting vengeance but not the girl–and he becomes the hero he sees himself to be. The viewer who does not identify with him, or who is plain confused about whether this is a good guy or a bad guy, is then treated to the slickest and most chilling foreshadowing of more bloody vengeance on the horizon–ever

The blurb on the front of the novel could be for the film (or good for the campaign trail of 2008):

He was a peaceful man but there were some things which only a gun can settle. 


 The back cover adds a cautionary note, if one cares to read a yellow flag in it: LEGACY OF VIOLENCE, with a jarring color contrast. But then, who ever pays attention to the back cover? 

Dammit! My comfort routine has become disrupted and charged with meaning–what I exactly do not want. I who had desired a simple world may have to find it within myself…

You…you talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. You talking to me?



*302 to be exact. 

**Case in point. Across-the-street car service drivers on the whoop-up trail until 5 in the morning. Just thinking about the men, women, and children trying to enjoy their Friday night sleep (like me) gets me ticked. A cowboy of any gender would shout out the window, call the establishment, whatever. I tried to go back to sleep. But I guess I’m not the only non-cowboy on my city block, as no one else drilled them in any fashion. 

*** Although there are a number of poetic drivers out there. I know two as friends, and prosaic wouldn’t be in their vocabularies…

**** I wonder if the Taxi Driver analogy has come from a sleepless night due to livery drivers? One can say that the taxi drivers are the mavericks, while the livery cab drivers are more like the cowboy organizations. Well, whoever they are, they are doing the equivalent of shooting up the town. 

August 24, 2008

Wanted: Cowboy Presidents 2008

by cowboylands

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? 

July 4, 2008

TR's Blessings on Us (U.S.); or, the Origin of the Cowboy

by cowboylands

A patriotic theme for a patriotic day—Happy July 4th!

On July 1, 1898, Roosevelt was cursing the fact that he had to dismount from his steed, Little Texas, to lead the cavalry charge up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill in Cuba.  But he knew that if he could get up to the top and strike the right pose, people’s imaginations would do the rest. After all, hadn’t he gathered the best of his western friends and Ivy League pals to join the “Rough Riders”? Wasn’t the media already agog at this volunteer force that was busy putting the Cowboy in cowboy? But then—what can happen when you take the Cowboy thing a little too seriously–things got Western when the troops who followed him suffered heavy casualties. Yet what image has stuck in the collective unconscious? TR on a horse, racing to victory! Bully!

It was the public imagination of the Rough Riders with Roosevelt at the head, brandishing guns and cowboy hat and spurs and whatnot and epitomizing the romantic and dashing West, that helped Roosevelt continue his ride to the White House as vice president, and then, after the assassination of President McKinley, gave Roosevelt popular support during his term at the head of the U.S.

Roosevelt’s exploits are legendary; his character a disconcerting amalgam of arrogance, a sense of honor, work ethic, racism, compassion, Big Stick, and Good Deed Doer (his statue outside the American Museum of Natural History in NYC has got to be seen to be believed—very un-PC).

Yet, despite some of the more hard-to-swallow elements of his life, it’s fitting that on this Independence Day Cowboylands gives a shoutout to the man who created 42 million acres of national forests, 53 wildlife refuges, 8 areas of “special interest” like the Grand Canyon; co-founded the American Bison Association; inspired the establishment of the Forest Service, and organized the first National Governors Conservation Conference. Very Cowboy of him!

That’s why I can’t resist featuring one of my favorite/least favorite photos of our own world leader, our own Cowboy, who in 2005 was borrowing TR’s buckskinned image to invoke the blessings of the Cowboy-deity as he defended the classified eavesdropping program. (New York Times, Dec. 17, 2005)

No way no how Cowboy!

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Copyright NYTimes Company 2005





June 1, 2008

What Would Gary Cooper Do?

by cowboylands

When life appears frustrating, demeaning, terrifying, unfixable, and/or immutable, it is helpful to ask: “What would Gary Cooper do?”

His example—and that of other western celluloid heroes—provides an antidote to the life of the office drone, the frustrated housewife/husband, or the cog in the machine. Following the Cowboy Way allows one to stand tall in the land of mediocrity.

Why, with the herds of movie stars available, would I pick the Coop? Because he said it best in Along Came Jones (1945): “You gotta look like you’re somebody and act like you’re somebody….You do that, pretty soon you are somebody.” (OK, it’s a comedy and he’s spoofing his cowboy image, but still a good line, dammit!) 

 How to  look like you’re somebody:

  • The boots. Whoever has walked less than a mile* in cowboy boots knows that the steady thud of their stout heels provides a degree of self-assurance that borders on guarantee.
  • The belt buckle. When you wear one, you are the champion. Of the world.
  • The hat. You have to fill the dome with—if not brains—than hot air. Talk like you own the ranch and you will.
  • Which brings us to the talk. Do you have the garrulity of Andy Devine or the laconic impact of the Duke? (Note that one is always the sidekick, and one is the movie star.)
  • The action. Like a quarter horse, you’ve got to be able to turn on a dime and be ready for the shootout, the showdown, the barroom brawl, the attack (doesn’t have to be Apache), the wagons-in-a-circle maneuver, the cutting-a-bullet-out-of-your-leg routine, the lip-lock with the beautiful/handsome love interest, or the ride-into-the sunset trick. Life, fast and furious, isn’t scripted, so it’s good to bone up on the possibilities.

Katy Jurado’s character, the widow Helen Ramirez, describes Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane in High Noon (1952): He’s a man. And it takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man.

Following in the Coop’s footsteps is more than embodying a swaggering cowboy diplomacy, or carrying a big stick/gun/chip on your shoulder.  It’s about striving to take an idealized high road in conduct, as well as looking good on a horse. And not being a good rider myself, I have to add that you don’t necessarily need the other outer trappings (boots, belt buckle, hat), although they are stylish.

All is right in the Western World, then, right? Wrong. Trouble can ensue when following the Cowboy Way. But that’s a subject of another post…All images copyright 2008

Happy virtual trails. 

*If you walk more than a mile you aren’t really a cowboy, as you obviously do not have a horse, ATV, or pickup to your name. 





May 6, 2008

Cowboy Diplomacy Isn't Just for White Men Anymore

by cowboylands

Independent. Rough-hewn. Clean-cut. Hell-raiser, and all in good, clean fun.

But for however many hardworking cowpokes out there, “cowboy” is also code for another array of attributes: rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, antiquated, nonrefined, in-your-face. Add that to “diplomacy” and you have a thick brew of Ugly American.

“Cowboy diplomacy” has made it to Wikipedia. In Wiki-speak, it means the “resolution of international conflicts through brash risk-taking, intimidation, military deployment, or a combination.” To quote further from the not so-neutral Wiki-editor: “Overtly provocative phraseology typically centralizes the message, such as George W. Bush’s ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.'” That line doesn’t have the terse power of Eastwood’s words, but every time I hear it, it brings home the fact that we are living on a huge movie set, peopled by leaders in Stetsons.

Western story lines are like code, arrangements of elements that satisfy the genre’s structure. One element is a climactic showdown, or what “cowboy diplomacy” inevitably leads to. But, with the arrival of two non-stereotypical stars, Clinton and Obama, we have a chance of having our own revisionist Western. A Western that does not adhere to the dusty, worn plots of yore, and which promises fresh perspectives. Change!
The woman: Clinton is definitely not a tart with a heart of gold. She is not the mild frontier housewife. I have yet to hear of anyone calling her a cowboy, but she can already swig whiskey with the guys.
African American man: Obama’s not the sidekick! He actually has speaking parts! He has a starring role!
Promising! But the more these candidates take pot-shots at each other, the more it seems that these two are in a showdown themselves, filled with intimidation, brash risk-taking, and the same old moralistic “with me or against me” script. There’s still a chance this will be a new Western, but it could be that cowboy diplomacy is here to stay….