Country Strong

In 1999, as he was preparing his run for the White House, George W. Bush made an important purchase. The son of a president and grandson of a senator, born in Connecticut and schooled at Andover, Yale, and Harvard, bought himself a ranch. Over the next ten years, he would repeatedly bring photographers out to document him clearing brush, always with Stetson atop his head and gigantic belt buckle firmly in place.

Bush may not have been much for book learnin', but he appreciated the power of political iconography. The cowboy, he knew, is perhaps the most potent American archetype, the hero whose story speaks to everything many Americans want to believe about themselves and their country. And today, the newest star of the Republican party has more cowboy in his little finger than Bush had in his whole being -- for better and for worse. As a candidate, Texas governor Rick Perry will be enacting a particular performance of masculinity, one that will resonate powerfully with some people -- especially white men -- even as it alienates others.

Within a few days of announcing his candidacy, Perry was already displaying his particular flair for the provocative. Asked for his thoughts about Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, Perry seemed to suggest a lynching, then asserted that if the Fed conducted another round of quantitative easing to boost the economy, it should be considered a crime punishable by execution. "If this guy prints more money between now and the election," Perry said, "I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but ... we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money, to play politics at this particular time in American history, is almost treacherous -- or treasonous, in my opinion."

It was colorful but not surprising to those familiar with Perry. As Texas journalist John Spong wrote, "'Treat him pretty ugly' is, in fact, the way we talk down here. We're prone to violent imagery, typically without the intent to actually hurt anyone." Perry has built his career on being more conservative than anyone else around, and in a particularly Texan fashion. If there's one recent bit of heroism he's proud of, it would probably be the time last year when out jogging, he shot a coyote that he said was menacing his dog. (What, you don't pack your .380 Ruger when you go for a run?) Today, it seems that every other story about Perry (see here for an example) is illustrated with that photo of him hoisting a pistol in the air, mouth open in a whoop, as though he were Yosemite Sam in a suit.

The intimation of violence in Bush's rhetoric was always vicarious; he might say "bring 'em on" about Iraqi insurgents, but he wasn't the one facing the fire. With Perry, you get the feeling he's personally itching to fight. Perry also comes by his cowboy image more honestly than Bush; he actually did grow up on a farm in a tiny Texas town. He is confrontational and combative where Bush portrayed himself as a "uniter, not a divider." This is enabled by the fact that unlike when Bush was governor, Texas under Perry is almost a one-party state, so appealing to Democrats isn't necessary. To get a sense of how Perry's swagger goes over with some folks, consider this illustrative anecdote. You may have heard the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and executed for murdering his daughters by setting fire to their house, a crime of which he was almost certainly innocent. As Politico recently reported, when the campaign of Republican Senator Kay Baily Hutchinson, who was challenging Perry in a 2010 gubernatorial primary, considered raising the issue, they tested it with focus groups. One voter memorably told them, "It takes balls to execute an innocent man." Bred in the Southern culture of honor, where masculinity is forever tenuous and slights must be avenged quickly to save face, Perry's willingness to use violence, in rhetoric or reality, is close enough to the surface to be visible to all.

Violence and the culture of honor have always been key themes in cowboy mythology, which is less a construction of history than a production of the American entertainment industry. It was essentially invented by Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West show toured the country and the world beginning in 1882. Actual cowboys may not have had duels at high noon, but the image of the lone gunslinger taming the lawless frontier was too compelling to worry about historical accuracy, and the popularity of Westerns only rose until its peak in the 1950s. "Last week eight of the top ten shows on TV were horse operas," reported Time magazine in a cover story in March 1959, when there were no fewer than 30 prime-time Westerns airing on the three networks. Of the heroes of these shows, the magazine said, "Their teeth were glittering, their biceps bulging, their pistols blazing right there in the living room; it was more fun, as they say in Texas, than raisin' hell and puttin' a chunk under it."

Why were cowboys so compelling at that moment in history? Consider the changing status of the American man in postwar America. As more and more breadwinners moved from the farm or factory into office work, upper-body strength no longer seemed so critical to personal or national success. If you were pushing papers all day, it wasn't so easy to feel like your job expressed and validated your masculinity. So dramas in which strong and brave gunslingers faced down villains while women swooned held a particular appeal. As one sociologist quoted in the Time article said, "How long since you used your fists? How long since you called the boss an s.o.b.?" What's more, a Western hero "cannot be hagridden; if he wants to get away from women, there is all outdoors to hide in."

That appeal may not be quite as strong today, but it has never disappeared. And as a party that has long built its success on the votes of white men (44 percent of John McCain's votes in 2008 came from white men, compared to only 27 percent of Barack Obama's), the GOP is drawn to arguments that play on male anxieties about strength and potency. Most recent campaigns have featured Republicans asserting that their candidate is manly and strong, while the Democrats' candidate is effeminate and weak.

That isn't to say that candidates from both parties don't try to show their manliness, particularly when it comes to the willingness to wield firearms and kill animals. John Kerry went hunting two weeks before the 2004 election, so he could be photographed carrying a shotgun. Ever eager to please, Mitt Romney insisted four years ago that he too was a lifelong hunter (though he soon had to admit that he had hunted only a couple of times, and only for "small varmints").

The question Rick Perry now confronts is how a style that has worked well in the Lone Star State wears when taken to the rest of the country. The answer will tell us just how strong a political appeal the cowboy image maintains today. It may be that George W. Bush's playacting cowboy routine, entirely theatrical as it was, was more palatable to the country than something that looks more like the real thing. Rick Perry carries a real gun, with real bullets, and isn't inclined to suffer a slight or reach out to those he sees as his enemies. Which may be exactly what makes it harder for him to win the White House.

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