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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Bush revels in cowboy speak
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online

President Bush says he is going to appoint a coordinator to "ride herd" Middle East leaders along the peace trail. You would be forgiven for not understanding what he meant. Its meaning most likely eluded the leaders from the Middle East who he was meeting.

"[I could] see them scratching their heads," the US president told assembled reporters on Air Force One as he flew out of the Red Sea resort of Aqaba on Wednesday.

"I don't know if anybody understood the meaning, it's a little informal in diplomatic terms," he added, chuckling.

He probably didn't mean it but his [ride herd] metaphor is tinged with being slightly patronising. Translated literally, it means that he will want things to go in the direction he wants them to go
Western culture expert Lee Clark Mitchell

President Bush clearly loves that cowboy imagery. It's straight from his home state of Texas and he is comfortable with it.

Remember when he branded Saddam Hussein an "outlaw" or declared that he wanted Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive"?

Or his 2002 State of the Union address, when he evoked images of al-Qaeda leaders "running for their lives" from the long arm of American justice?

Cracking the whip

This time around, however, Mr Bush may not have adopted quite the right metaphor, says Lee Clark Mitchell, professor of English and a Western culture expert at Princeton University.

President Bush on the 2000 campaign trail
Mr Bush's cowboy image has been heavily debated both at home and abroad

In Texas, to ride herd means that a cowboy on horseback keeps the cattle in line by cracking the whip, whistling and lasso-ing the odd stray.

"He probably didn't mean it but his metaphor is tinged with being slightly patronising. Translated literally, it means that he will want things to go in the direction he wants them to go."

Cowboy imagery is quite central to Mr Bush's presidential persona. He holds crucial policy talks at his ranch in Crawford.

"The image he is cultivating is that of the mythic cowboy, strong, morally upright, independent and God-fearing - a stalwart figure standing against chaos," says Mr Mitchell.

Well-used image

"The cowboy sees complex issues in simple, morally unambivalent ways. There is the good and the bad and this is how George Bush sees things, much to the consternation of much of the country."

The cowboy represents a popular point of reference in American culture and has been adopted by past politicians.

The US president holds talks with a delegation from Saudi Arabia
Mr Bush's Texas ranch has been the venue of many diplomatic pushes
Teddy Roosevelt was a type of rancher, as was Ronald Reagan, who borrowed heavily from his former film career.

And Henry Kissinger once said: "I've always acted alone. Americans admire that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone."

A recent poll by the independent Pew Research Centre in Washington asked for one-word descriptions from the public to best describe their commander-in-chief.

Positive terms were "confident", "courageous", "determined" and "decisive" - in short, traits associated with the mythic cowboy.

But, among the president's detractors, "cowboy" was one of the most common descriptions provided.

A recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine dismissed Bush as a "politician who pretends to be a cowboy in order to remind us of Reagan."

Gary Jacobsen, political scientist at the University of California says Mr Bush's Texan persona is, largely, to blame for him being "a remarkably polarising figure".

"People who like Mr Bush love the imagery and rhetoric," he says. "It is populist, down to Earth."

"But a larger proportion are indifferent to it. Others just find it embarrassing."




SEE ALSO:
Texas town: Howdy comrade
14 Nov 01  |  Americas
Bush enjoys hometown support
08 Apr 03  |  Americas
Bush puts God on his side
06 Apr 03  |  Americas


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