BOSTON — Europeans, particularly the French, love to deride President Bush as a cowboy, and Bush, apparently, enjoys playing the part. This disconnect probably has several causes, but one of them is surely that Europeans don't see the same cowboy from across the Atlantic that Bush sees in the mirror.
Steeped in classics of American cinema, I suspect Europeans imagine a smirking gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger, a drunken barroom bully -- Lee Marvin as John Ford's Liberty Valance -- bristling for a fight and ready to shoot up the neighborhood just for kicks.
Although the president seems incapable of wiping a smirk off his face, the rest of the French view doesn't really fit. The cowboy he portrays is the soul of rectitude -- the reformed drunk, not the libertine. His model appears to be one of the Western sheriffs that American television depicted so vividly when Bush and I were kids. The closest fit is Matt Dillon of "Gunsmoke". Dillon was the steely eyed defender of civilization's toehold in Dodge City, sober almost to a fault but willing, if pushed, to smash the nose of your Frenchman's cowpoke and toss his sorry carcass out though the swinging barroom doors, with a nod to the piano player (sometimes called Frenchie) to start playin' agin' so decent folk could go about their business.
Is this image less frightening than that imagined by the French
The producers of "Gunsmoke" made a point of inviting the audience to identify with Dillon's worldview. The lead-in to every show found the same all-purpose ruffian framed by Dillon's bowlegs and boots. Dillon's off-screen hand (our hand, if we accepted the invitation) was imagined drawing a Colt .45, pulling the trigger and dropping the eternal bad guy dead at our feet.
Dillon's world was a parlous place, surrounded by unshaven, heavily armed bandits, all rarin' to wreak havoc on the streets of Dodge. Every week, a new evildoer emerged from this black-and-white landscape, and Mr. Dillon resolved the conflict de la semaine in the only way imaginable -- by gunning the troublemaker down. Since the story never changed, there was every reason to conclude that it never would. Safety would grow, if at all, from the barrel of a gun.
Our gunslinger did wear a sheriff's badge, but it didn't fool anyone. Law didn't matter. Intelligence, experience and insight were all focused on the frontier version of a preemptive strike: getting a drop on the bad guy. Legal niceties like proportionate response did not matter, either. Nor did democracy or civility play a role. The populace was supposed to keep its head down. Civilized restraint was embodied by a dance hall girl named Kitty, whose only appropriate counsel was "Matt, be careful."
All told, Bush's cowboy is no less scary that the one the French imagine. Still scarier is his apparent inability to move beyond the "Gunsmoke" stage of imaginative development. America's frontier heroes grew up a bit in the early 1960s, evolving into "adult Western" characters like Bret Maverick in "Maverick" and Paladin in "Have Gun -- Will Travel"; but the complexities and ironies they embraced would only undermine the moral clarity Bush is also keen to project.
"Have Gun -- Will Travel" featured America's first "black hat" Western hero, a fast-gun-for-hire named Paladin. Bush toys with black-hat roles: Consider his oblique invitation in the State of the Union address to imagine CIA Gurkhas falling upon terrorists in their sleep. But Paladin did not mince words, especially when speaking truth to power. Though "Have Gun -- Will Travel" often began with a wealthy man hiring Paladin, it just as often ended with Paladin on someone else's side -- the side he found to be in the right after learning the facts. As much a mystery as a Western, the show was based on the premise that things are seldom what they seem, that justice and people's survival depend on seeing them aright, and manly virtue requires an honest effort to educate yourself before you act. As the man possessed of the heaviest firepower this side of the United States cavalry, Paladin was often in a position to play judge, jury and executioner. But he made life-and-death decisions reluctantly, upon reflection.
Bush as avatar of moral clarity is mostly the opposite -- unshakable in his faith, interested in facts only as evidence of revealed truth. People who trust Bush do so in part, I suspect, because he dispenses with the doubts that Paladin sorted through, and because inexplicable developments do not shake his faith. Bush appears to prefer Dillon to Paladin because in Dillon's world the locus of evil is known, and the virtues needed to defeat it are fortitude and resolve, not intellect. For Bush, like Dillon, there is only one question: not whether but when he will face evil and kill it.