WASHINGTON — President Bush long has cultivated the image of a rancher in the Wild West, donning cowboy boots and blue jeans to clear brush on his sprawling Texas property. But on Monday he was noncommittal, and even a bit nonplused, when asked for his reaction to the most talked-about ranching film in years, "Brokeback Mountain."
"I haven't seen it," Bush said of the critically acclaimed love story about two gay ranch hands. "I'll be glad to talk about ranching," the president told thousands of students and professors in the audience at Kansas State University, "but I haven't seen the movie."
"Brokeback Mountain" this month won the Golden Globe award for best motion picture drama and top honors from the Producers Guild of America. Through Sunday, it had earned $42.1 million and had been remarkably successful in the conservative, red-state towns and cities that helped reelect Bush.
"Brokeback Mountain" is showing in at least two theaters in Waco, Texas, the closest city to Bush's home near Crawford. And it is doing quite well, said Ben Reynolds, manager of the Hollywood Jewel 16. It was the second most popular film in the complex last week, he said.
But Bush on Monday gave no indication that he intended to see the film when a young man raised the issue near the end of a lengthy, unscripted question-and-answer session.
"You're a rancher," the young man said to Bush. "A lot of us here in Kansas are ranchers. I was just wanting to get your opinion on 'Brokeback Mountain,' if you've seen it yet."
As the hall filled with nervous laughter, the young man persisted: "You would love it. You should check it out."
The president appeared as if he wanted to say something about the film. "I've heard about it," he said. "I hope you go -- you know."
He paused, and the hall filled again with nervous laughs. The president appeared to chuckle a bit, and then said: "I hope you go back to the ranch and the farm is what I'm about to say."
The audience applauded, even though it was not clear what Bush meant. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan offered little clarification.
"The student indicated he was a rancher," McClellan said in an e-mail. "The president was simply saying he hopes he goes back to the ranch. Ranchers and farmers are an important part of our society."
One observer said he was not surprised by Bush's apparent discomfort. Although the story line is full of Republican touchstones -- small-town Fourth of July celebrations, a father's devotion to his children, even the wide-open landscape of Wyoming, Vice President Dick Cheney's home state -- the depiction of homosexuality makes the film untouchable for a politician.
"It's the thing no one can talk about," said Bill Handley, an associate professor of English at USC who is compiling a book of essays on the movie's cultural impact. "So he's repeating that whole gesture in the film that you turn your eyes away, you don't want to act like it's there."