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They're cowboys in chief

The rugged ideal is irresistible to presidents. The Autry examines how the leaders have claimed the western motif.

April 13, 2008|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

FOR better or worse, George W. Bush is our presidential cowboy du jour. Google his name and the word "cowboy," and 128,000 entries pop up. Many contain media musings over the president's taste for cowboy gear -- such as the $1,000 cowboy hat he sports at his ranch in Crawford, Texas -- and his tendency to pepper his speech with Western references, such as his comment that he would "smoke out" terrorists hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan's mountainous border region.

Whether Bush's identification with cowboys is good or bad tends to be in the eye of the beholder. What's certain, though, is that the Texan is far from the first president to curry the cowboy image -- perhaps the quintessential symbol of American independence, strength and manliness -- for its political capital.

The Autry National Center examines ways in which presidents have defined themselves as cowboys -- or at least, quasi cowboys -- since Teddy Roosevelt in the new exhibition "Cowboys and Presidents," which runs through Sept. 7 before traveling to Austin, Texas.

The show surveys a century of photos, newsreels and newspaper stories; film, TV and radio clips; artworks; and presidential memorabilia culled from private lenders and collections belonging to the Autry as well as presidential and university libraries.

Highlights include the iconic, such as LBJ's much-photographed Stetson hat; the sentimental -- drawings inspired by the film "High Noon," which Bill Clinton made as a child; the metaphorical -- the intricately carved Saddle of Independence dedicated to 9/11, which was a gift from the Black Hills Stock Show Foundation to George W. Bush; and the curious -- Calvin Coolidge's electric exercise horse (which resembled a mechanical bull). "The rumor is he rode it in the White House in his underwear and a cowboy hat," says Garron Maloney, the assistant curator for Ranch Life and the New West who organized the show with lead curator B. Byron Price, director of the University of Oklahoma's Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West, and Jeffrey Richardson, the current Autry-University of Nevada Las Vegas fellow. Maloney says the exhibition, five years in the making, and upcoming book by Price constitute the first scholarly work on the subject.

Before Teddy Roosevelt's time, cowboys had a nasty reputation, thanks to Billy the Kid and other violent outlaws who ran roughshod over the frontier. Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows and late-19th century dime novels combined to recast the cowboy's image as an Anglo-Saxon hero and heir to the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table.

The curators argue that presidential cowboys have since been perceived as wearing either black or white hats; the ascendant color often correlated with the success or failure of their policies.

"It depends on the person projecting the image," Maloney says. "When you're opposed to something he does that you think is reckless, you project the black hat. If you like the president and you think that what he's doing is strong and heroic, then you project the white hat. We see it in political cartoons and fine art."

In 1927, when Coolidge began sporting cowboy attire that included chaps emblazoned with his nickname -- Cal -- spelled out in studs, the New York Times praised his metamorphosis, observing that "he suppressed his natural reserve and became part of the country." Lyndon Johnson frequently donned his cowboy persona along with the attire when he entertained foreign heads of state at his 2,700-acre ranch in Texas. His habit of showing them his Hereford cattle inspired a pundit to describe his political technique as "barbecue diplomacy," but his folky style didn't always charm the Europeans.

French President Charles de Gaulle sniffed that Johnson was a "home-on-the-range" rube, more interested in his Texan ways than he was in "this uneasy globe." The exhibition includes an LBJ mannequin in full Western regalia, a Ladies for Lyndon cowgirl outfit, and the president's saddle and boots embellished with the presidential seal.

End of metaphor?

MORE recently, Bush's embrace of the cowboy image coupled with his confrontational foreign policy has led to media accusations that he's the worst proponent of bullheaded "cowboy diplomacy." Some argue that the combination is spelling an end to the rough-riding metaphor for American foreign policy. In 2003, Susan Faludi wrote in the New York Times that the cowboy myth had "been on its sickbed for a generation."

So is the cowboy image dead or alive? Curators caution against writing its epitaph too soon because of its persistent usefulness. In the current presidential race, every candidate except for Hillary Rodham Clinton has invoked it, posing for pictures at campaign stops in bolo ties and cowboy hats, they note.

"In the end, we ask if cowboy diplomacy is dead" in the show's interactive computer poll, Maloney says. "We'll see photos of Obama and McCain in cowboy hats, and they'll have to say, 'Well, is it really dead?' Because we see now that it's been dead several times, but it always comes back."

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