Cowboy president on the world's frontier

When critics of President George W. Bush are trying to call him a name, the worst they can come up with is "cowboy."

(I mean, of course, the names that can be printed in a family newspaper.)

In Europe, as I understand it, this is comparable to calling somebody a cross between a redneck and a bumpkin. Too dumb to know any better, but dangerous nonetheless.

So European leaders who don't like Dubya's get-tough stance with Iraq conjure up an image of John Wayne swaggering through the corral with pistols in both hands and attempt to defame the president by saying he's "acting like a cowboy."

Hold on just a darn minute there, pardner.

I've known a few cowboys in my day, and they're nothing like George W. Bush. Besides, to most everybody west of the Mississippi, calling someone a cowboy is more compliment than curse.

Nevertheless, I'm inclined to take this cowboy criticism seriously. Are we trying to solve the Iraq problem the way Wyatt Earp might have handled it? And is there anything wrong with that?

I've never been a cowboy, so most of what I know about them I read in books. I know how Louis L'Amour's cowboys handled things, and the heroes stuck to a strict moral code.

For a more complicated view of cowboy justice, though, I need to go to the best novel ever written on the subject: "The Ox-Bow Incident," by Northern Nevada's own Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

If somehow you missed it in high-school English class, read it now. You can come back and finish reading the column later, because what Clark wrote is so much better than what I've scribbled below.

To recap, "The Ox-Bow Incident" tells the story of a posse -- or maybe it's a lynch mob -- formed to ride into the Sierra Nevada to capture cattle rustlers who also killed a man.

They're acting on the best evidence they have, and they're eager to get going before the rustlers get away. They may already have waited too long trying to pin down all the legal niceties of being deputized by Sheriff Risely.

A judge isn't necessarily opposed to what the men are about to do, but he wants it to be legally proper. That can't be done by a "lawless mob" acting without proper authority.

The narrator, Art Croft, listening to the arguments on all sides and caught up in the dilemma between decisive action and thoughtful restraint, can't see himself ever being part of a lawless lynch mob.

"That seemed to me to be stretching it a bit," Croft thought. "Those men may have been bent on hanging somebody without the delay of a trial, but there was a lot of difference between the way they were going at it and what I thought of as a mob. I didn't say anything, though."

In Clark's story, I'm not sure in whose role I would cast George Bush. Perhaps as Tetley, the rancher who is leading the posse and does the questioning and who, in the end, has the most to lose.

Because you know the story, you know they hang the wrong men. And they blame Tetley, which allows them to not blame themselves.

I don't want to carry this analogy too far, because we know how "The Ox-Bow Incident" ends and we don't know how "The Iraq Incident" is going to turn out.

There doesn't seem to be much doubt Saddam Hussein is a murderous cattle rustler. The question is who makes up the posse. And how many innocent people will die before he's rounded up.

If George Bush is a cowboy president, then we're all part of the posse.

There are those who will follow him without question, because he has the authority. There are those who have weighed the evidence and decided on their own to support him.

There are those who are simply riding along to see what happens, willing to let somebody else make the decisions. There are those who believe it is wrong but say nothing. There are those who believe it is wrong and try to change others' minds.

As Clark demonstrated so vividly in his novel, there are many kinds of cowboys. Those critics of Bush might want to listen to some of them, because the world is a big frontier populated by some dangerous outlaws.

"If I started a fight with that guy, it would come to shootin,' " says one of the cowboys, Gil, at the end of Clark's book.

"We've had enough of that," Croft replies.

"I know it," says Gil, "but I don't know how to start a decent fight with that kind of a guy."

Gil thinks about it a little more and adds, "He's a funny guy. I don't know how you'd start a decent fight with him."

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment