Around Politics: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: 'Cowboys'

Back in the 1980s, the old Soviet Union, and European and American peace activists seemed to have a lot in common when it came to describing then President Ronald Reagan. They called him a “cowboy,” and it was not meant as a term of endearment. Instead, their image of “cowboy” was that of the “rootin’ tootin’ two-gun shootin’” variety. Our current president, George W. Bush, has also been branded “cowboy.”

I recently sat down and read one of the best books on Ronald Reagan that I have thumbed through. The book, Riding with Reagan, was authored by retired U.S. Secret Service officer John R. Barletta. Barletta was one of those in charge of protecting President Reagan, and he was also a horseman and thus “rode with Reagan.” I enjoyed this glimpse into the presidency of Ronald Reagan because it reveals the man as opposed to some scholarly take on his policies.

In the book, Barletta adds his name to the list of those who viewed President Reagan as a “cowboy,” but his definition is not quite the same: “I believe deep down he [President Reagan] embraced the cowboy ideals of the West, such as a firm handshake and friendship. The history of the West is one of hardworking cowboys, the John Wayne types, and he truly believed in hard work. Let’s all just chip in and get it done, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. That was Reagan’s way.

“In doing business, all that was needed was a firm handshake. His word was his bond. A cowboy would rather die before he would break his word,” according to Barletta’s book.

The book is primarily about horses and riding. Specifically, Barletta tells about President Reagan’s need to find an “escape” in the beautiful landscape around his ranch and on the back of the horses he loved so dearly. The name of the ranch says it all; Rancho del Cielo, “Ranch in the Sky.”

For those of us who have a real interest in horses and the horse culture, the word “cowboy” comes with hardly a negative connotation but instead the opposite. The description that Barletta lays out in his book in the excerpt above is the type of individual I want running the country. The values instilled in that type of individual can be applied to almost any situation, including the weighty decisions made by a president.

The last election, the one that affirmed the presidency of the latest “cowboy” to inhabit the White House, seemed to be more about trust and the embodiment of the “cowboy ideals.” Like his policies or not, George W. Bush has the courage of his convictions, and with that brings great assurance to a public that may not be as steeped in the specifics of an issue.

It took a while for some to conclude and accept the strengths that Ronald Reagan brought to the country. It will probably take a while before the current president is afforded the same place in history. So far, the country has been much better off with the “cowboys” behind the reins than otherwise.

Jim Thacker is a political consultant and columnist.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2005, issue

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