The Cowboy Myth

We're told repeatedly that George W. Bush's leadership style is rooted in Texas values, but what's so Texan about squinty-eyed moral clarity, shoot-from-the-hip decisiveness, and go-it-alone gunslinging?

WE’RE TOLD REPEATEDLY THAT George W. Bush’s leadership style is rooted in Texas values, but what’s so Texan about squinty-eyed moral clarity, shoot-from-the-hip decisiveness, and go-it-alone gunslinging?

Not long after he moved into the Eastern White House, George W. Bush let it be known that he could just as easily do the free world’s business at the Western White House. “This is a fabulous environment in which to make decisions,” Bush said of his Prairie Chapel Ranch, near Crawford, far from the Georgetown chatter and the Foggy Bottom bureaucrats, deep in the heartland of his “Texas values.” When Crawford began hosting the state visits that really mattered, the media began to see the ranch as a metaphor for the president’s leadership style; Bob Woodward concluded his laudatory account of the Afghanistan campaign, Bush at War, with an elegiac tour of the former hog farm, a literary wide-angle shot to frame the president’s declaration: “I’m not a textbook player. I’m a gut player.” If the guy who caught Nixon fibbing could believe in Crawford, we all could. Bush’s unapologetic cowboy-style leadership became perceived as irrevocably rooted in a Texas as real and timeless as the blackland prairie beneath his battered work boots.

Even amid a polarizing war in Iraq, the idea that American policy bears an indelible made-in-Texas stamp remains a rare point of bipartisan—and international—consensus; whether you are red or blue depends on how you take to the laconic, Bible-toting gunslinger who finally rode down the black hat his Yankee daddy had turned loose. But beyond the Western-themed clichés, there is nothing inherently Texan about the president’s leadership style. Indeed, it’s arguable that his once-formidable job-approval rating wouldn’t be hovering at the margin of reelectability if his decision-making owed more to a Texas history textbook than to his Harvard Business School case studies. You don’t have to look further than the most familiar names in the Lone Star pantheon—Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Lyndon B. Johnson—to discover a distinctly Texan leadership model as contrary to popular expectations as it is to the president’s squinty-eyed moral clarity and shoot-from-the-hip decisiveness. To understand how to really rule like a Texan requires a short course in the leadership habits of the state’s most highly effective icons:

Look at the dark side. The late El Paso artist Tom Lea wrote that he lived on the east side of the mountain, “the sunrise side … the side to see the day that is coming, not the … day that is gone. The best day is the day coming.” Bush has frequently cited this passage as characteristic of his own, Reaganesque outlook, but his serene, no-doubts optimism really isn’t a Texas leadership thing: Our three historical exemplars were world-class brooders who frequently greeted the day with paralyzing fears of inadequacy and failure. Periodically suffering funks that today we would probably treat as clinical depression, Austin relentlessly forecast his own ruin, writing to confidants that although his colonists were thriving as a result of his labors, he could be found in a miserable “log cabin … soured with the world.” Houston was a legendary lush given to years-long bouts of solitary, almost suicidal despair. LBJ was at times so depressed that staffers had to physically evict him from his bed and pump his arms to get him going. (“I cannot stand Johnson’s damn long face,” complained chipper Boston aristocrat JFK of his pining VP.) The dark side used to be a familiar place for Texas’s desperately poor country folk, oppressed by greedy landlords and malignant nature, who knew that ruin was only a hailstorm away. But a leader who knows that the sky really can fall isn’t such a bad thing: Nothing guarantees failure more than blithe expectations of success.

Don’t be a Lone Ranger. Going it alone was anathema to Texas’s greatest leaders. Austin wanted to avoid a split with Mexico and ardently believed that his colonists’ best hope for freedom and security was statehood under a liberal Mexican constitution. As president of the Republic of Texas, Houston similarly aimed to find his fledgling nation a safe nest; determined to make Texas one of the United States, he eventually prevailed over wacko imperialists like rival Mirabeau B. Lamar, a poet fond of romantic schemes to invade Mexico. New Deal wheeler-dealer LBJ bucked Texas’s myth of stubborn independence and brought home the federal largesse—from electrifying the Hill Country in the thirties to lassoing NASA for Houston in the sixties—that helped transform Texas from a backward agricultural economy to a modern industrial and technological power. Riding tall in the saddle might be a fundamental Texas trait, but real Texas leaders have always understood that you can sit up even taller when you’re riding with a posse.

It’s about good decisions, not good values. Bush has made his own uncompromising values the linchpin of his resolute leadership style. The big three, practicing a much more pragmatic realpolitik, were often willing to shelve their good values in the interest of making good decisions. Austin loved freedom as much as any of his colonists, but believing that “where the fate of a whole people is in question, it is difficult to be too cautious or too prudent,” he put aside his “own impulses,” which favored “speedy and radical change.” Trimming frantically between his anarchical constituents and ham-handed Mexican administrators, Austin literally compromised Texas into existence.

Houston regarded slavery as a “calamity under which the nation labored” but believed it would be even more calamitous to dismember the Union to resolve the issue definitively; as one of Texas’s first pair of United States senators, he offended both Southerners and abolitionists with his attempts to find a workable consensus. As governor of Texas on the eve of the Civil War, he refused to take the Confederate loyalty oath and gave up his office, then turned down Lincoln’s offer of federal troops to restore his authority. Houston couldn’t


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