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?

October 2004By Comments

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 divide the nation or his state into good and evil factions; the principle he wanted to stand on was the spirit of compromise.

Then there was the twenty-year-old schoolteacher who threw himself into the education of neglected Tejano children in Cotulla back in 1928—and subsequently spent decades voting with racist Southern Democrats as if his political life depended on it. LBJ waited until 1957 to initiate the series of bills that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But by then the master of congressional consensus had made enough politically calculated good decisions to leverage the high-minded legislation that had eluded his idealistic, liberal Northern colleagues for generations. It’s easy to claim ownership of abstract “values.” But LBJ and his Texas predecessors captured the real moral high ground the old-fashioned way: marching in slow, measured pace right down the middle of the road.

Forget the Alamo. As warriors, the archetypal Texas leaders eschewed bring-it-on bravado. Austin literally went the extra mile for peace, traveling to Mexico City to negotiate key reforms before reluctantly throwing his support to the independence movement. Houston, who had never wanted to defend the Alamo to begin with, won the Texas Revolution by making what his compatriots widely considered an interminable, cowardly retreat toward San Jacinto, chiding one of the stand-and-fight hotheads, “It is better to do well, late; than never!” Both Houston and Austin resisted a furious clamor to string up Santa Anna after he was captured at San Jacinto; instead, they cleverly employed the vanquished butcher of the Alamo as a Washington lobbyist, dispatching him to President Andrew Jackson with an appeal for the United States to annex Texas.

LBJ believed he could keep his inherited “bitch of a war” in Vietnam on the back burner while he fought the war that really mattered to him—the war against poverty and intolerance. Reluctant to send in American troops, he hoped Ho Chi Minh would back down after a “dose” of American airpower. Astonished at Ho’s stubbornness, LBJ kept upping the dose and waiting for peace to break out; by late 1967 he was secretly planning to get out. Finally, faced with a war he couldn’t win, couldn’t honorably end, and couldn’t in good conscience continue, LBJ did the same thing Houston had done when confronted with an intractable lose-lose situation, the real Texas leadership thing: He corralled his colossal ego and hung up his spurs.

As governor, Bush showed what he would call an “instinctual” understanding of these Texas rules. Cautiously picking his battles, he strolled arm-in-arm with Democratic lieutenant governor Bob Bullock down the middle of the legislative aisle, even gracefully surrendering when his ambitious tax-reform package was gunned down. As president, even after 9/11, Bush belied his wanted-dead-or-alive swagger by following the cautious Texas model. His fumbling in the first few days after the terror attacks, now such a flash point for criticism, actually was instinctive Texas leadership in the Sam Houston tradition: retreat, assess, regroup, respond at the time and place of your own choosing. Strategically and tactically, the conflict in Afghanistan was Texas-style limited war: Bush rebuffed the neocons who couldn’t wait to whack Iraq, enlisted our NATO allies, and worst-cased the entire scenario. (“If we don’t have victory by winter, what do we do?” Bush queried his advisers.)

Then along came Iraq, and Bush broke all the Texas rules: Riding with nothing more than a fig-leaf coalition, he pushed for a hurry-up battle plan and relied on giddy, best-case post-war scenarios. And once the pragmatic pretext for the war—that Iraq was an imminent threat—vanished along with all the WMDs, Bush reinvented the conflict as a crusade for generic values (democracy versus despotism, freedom lovers versus freedom haters) that many Americans now believe is creating its own enemies.

Far from being a made-in-Texas misadventure, Iraq underscores the difference between real Texas leadership and something more suited to the mythological Texas, that realm of jackalopes and “Texas brags” where everyone owns a ranch and Davy Crockett eternally clobbers the freedom-hating foe with the butt of his spent flintlock. There’s a real irony to this, because throughout his political career in Texas, Bush was on the other side of that potent Texas myth. Ridiculed as a Yankee carpetbagger in his losing 1978 congressional race and out-twanged by good ol’ gal Ann Richards in his victorious 1994 gubernatorial campaign, the Connecticut-born, oil-patch-raised Ivy Leaguer with the peripatetic résumé actually embodied the essentially migratory, melting-pot culture of modern Texas. Looking a lot more like the future of the state than its mythological past, Governor Bush led an unprecedented bipartisan and multicultural consensus.

But now Bush seems to have reinvented himself as a retro-Texan, a throwback to a place that never existed beyond the Potemkin-village facade of Giant‘s Reata. When Bush bought his Crawford spread on the eve of announcing his presidential campaign, he probably didn’t intend for it to be much more than the typical architect-designed, environmentally friendly country getaway now so in vogue with affluent urban Texans. But as a result of his own spin and the media’s credulity about all things mythically Texan, the Crawford ranch has morphed into George W. Bush’s ancestral domain, the wellspring of those soundbite values that inspire his supporters and inflame his foes. The mythological Texas is a good place to be when the Texas symbolism is balanced by real Texas-style prudence (Ronald Reagan perfected the art of balancing the cowboy rhetoric with a willingness to deal when it got to the nut cuttin’). But a Texas spread can be a dangerous place during an increasingly unpopular war: Witness the fall of Landslide Lyndon, who found himself transformed from a colorful Hill Country rancher to a reporter-terrorizing, baby-killing mad cowboy in a few short years.

An election that in cultural terms seems to be boiling down to a contest between two maverick hit movies, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, could actually hinge on a big flop released earlier this year: the latest remake of The Alamo. If the nation is as tired of mythological Texans as the movie’s reception suggests, voters might decide to send their Texas president back to his ranch for good.

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