True Grit

To me, the word “COWBOY” calls to mind a long and noble tradition of hard work and honesty. But every time I turn on the news, I hear it thrown around as a pejorative, hijacked by pundits and politicians to refer to arrogant, reckless types who go it alone and break all the rules. If any of these folks had ever spent a day with my father on the McElroy Ranch—or with the thousands of working cowboys in Texas—they might have a different idea.
Kenny Callaway, 26, rode his first steer at an amateur rodeo when he was 4 years old. He lives and works at the Finley Ranch, outside Baird.
Photograph by Peter Yang

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


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