There was a time when the word “cowboy” evoked respect, even envy. In ranching circles it was an honorable label that had to be earned. One proved himself worthy of it through character, deed, and skill. Many a wannabe ranch hand—like me—never acquired it. Yet regrettably, in recent times “cowboy” has come to denote rashness, a shoot-from-the-hip readiness to use force without regard to consequences—in short, a total reversal of the word’s original and true meaning.
Though instances of this negative usage have been around for some time, they have increased dramatically over the past seven years, especially in a political context. While this is not the fault of George W. Bush, it has coincided with his time as president. Whether you like the man or not, you cannot deny that his image has taken a beating lately. I am here neither to condone nor to protest that beating. What concerns me is the collateral damage to the word “cowboy.”
From the beginning of his first term, Bush was referred to as a cowboy, but before September 11, the word was used primarily because he came from Texas, wore boots, vacationed on a ranch, and according to some critics, affected a certain swagger. After September 11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Bush’s comment that he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” calling the president a cowboy took on other shades of meaning. Soon, critics of his foreign policy began to speak of “cowboy diplomacy,” a phrase first used in 1983 by Betty Friedan to describe Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. By the time this year’s presidential campaign rolled around, Hillary Clinton was regularly lambasting Bush for being a “cowboy.” The word had officially become a political epithet.
Will this usage fade when Bush leaves office? It’s unlikely. During this campaign season, it has routinely been employed as effective shorthand, suggesting that it may be here to stay. The use of the word in a derogatory sense goes beyond Bush. Late last year, Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel used it against Clinton herself. Criticizing her for rejecting calls for direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program, Hagel said she and others were talking “like cowboys, with the lowest common denominator being ‘I can be tougher than you, I’ll go to war before you.’” Similarly, when asked in May about Clinton’s aggressive stance toward Iran, Barack Obama remarked that “we’re shifting from the sort of cowboy diplomacy … that we’ve seen out of George Bush.”
“Cowboy” no longer refers to a specific person or line of work but a style or way of doing things. It is now as much an adjective as it is a noun, as in this usage by Time correspondent Charles Krauthammer: “America is heartily disdained by its coddled and controlled European cousins for its cowboy capitalism.” Krauthammer was making the argument that a freewheeling economy is what has made our country strong, but the usage still would have seemed odd to a working ranch hand.
The real cowboy has somehow been lost in all the reckless rhetoric that uses his name in vain. It may be too late to save his reputation from the sneers of the pundits and politicians, but let us at least try to present some of the truth about who he is and what he does.
To begin with, he is a working man, having much in common with millions employed in other occupations, but different in the specifics of his profession. As writer John Erickson has observed, the cowboy is defined by the work he does. That work has to do with domestic animals, specifically cattle, though a good hand with horses and sheep may also qualify for the title.
To call a man a cowboy tells you what he does for a living, but it does not tell you about him as a person. He may be gentle, or he may be rough. He may have a college degree, or he may have trouble reading a newspaper. He may be in church every Sunday, or he may spend the Sabbath getting past a hangover. A cowboy is an individual—tall, short, thin, heavy, loud, quiet, or none of the above.
His job developed out of the vaquero tradition that migrated north from Mexico in the early 1700’s. Working methods and tools of the trade evolved from those favored by Mexican herders on horseback. In South Texas today, the terms “cowboy” and “vaquero” are often used interchangeably, though the true vaquero is Hispanic. In the mountain states of the West, the word is “buckaroo,” an Anglo corruption of “vaquero.”
But cowboying is no regular profession, like bricklaying or accounting. The cowboy is an integral part of the American myth, a symbol of self-reliance and rugged individualism, a descendant of Sir Walter Scott’s knights of old. Of course, this image of a wild but selfless defender of righteousness and justice is just as inaccurate as more-negative depictions. It began with penny-dreadful pulp magazines of the late 1800’s and was augmented by Hollywood western action films, beginning with The Great Train Robbery (1903) and continuing through the spaghetti western invasion of the sixties and seventies. In most of these he tended to be seven feet tall and quick on the trigger.
By contrast, the first western novel widely accepted as literature, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1904), depicted the cowboy as quiet and contemplative, slow to take action and regretful about it afterward. A boisterous group in town for a spree immediately settles down upon learning that they are disturbing a sick woman. The hero meets the villain in the street only when honor leaves him no other option. Wister’s cowboy lived by an unwritten but widely accepted code of conduct that, in general, has guided real cowboys through the generations.
I grew up in a cowboy world. My father, Buck Kelton, was foreman of the large McElroy Ranch, in Crane and Upton counties. He never went to the movies, and he never read western novels to find out what cowboys were supposed