“Code of the West”: Politics, Religion, and Popular Culture
"The era of cowboy politics is over!"
—Hillary Clinton, November 5, 2008
Famous last words! Ms. Clinton, a diehard Democrat who earlier that year attempted to win her party’s nod and run for the presidency, joyously made that statement hours after the ballot boxes closed. The person who won the nomination, Barack Obama, had just been elected forty-fourth U.S. president, the first African American to achieve that office. Republican John McCain, a politician from a Western ("red," in our post-2000 idiom) state, Arizona, along with running mate Sarah Palin, briefly governor of Alaska (far north in geography if red in orientation), had been roundly defeated. The newly elected president previously served as the U.S. senator for an Eastern (blue) state, Illinois, and vice president Joseph Biden as a senator from equally blue Delaware. They, along with many other party-line Democrats as well as liberal independents, believed (albeit briefly) that their victory represented a repudiation by the American people of political attitudes belonging to outgoing president George W. Bush (2001–2009). A Republican conservative like his father, the first president Bush (1989–1993), the man known as "W" had over eight years come to be perceived as the ultimate symbol (for better or worse, depending on one‘s views) of "cowboy politics."
That term, at least during the past half century, is almost always employed to describe right-leaning Republicans with strong religious ties, particularly to churches of the various Protestant denominations. Although numerous liberals have hailed from Western states—including South Dakota’s George McGovern, a Stetson-wearing Democrat who lost the presidential race to Richard Milhous Nixon of California in 1972—the essence of cowboy politics has less to do with geography and more to do with attitudes on small rather than large government, local rather than central problem solving, the issue of lower taxation, and an almost spiritual belief in the benefits of free-market capitalism. After all, the thirty-ninth president, moderately liberal Jimmy Carter, hailed from Georgia, today considered a red state and about a hundred years before that a gray one. His presidency (1977–1981) was in 1980 challenged by conservative Ronald Reagan, born in Illinois (Obama’s state, by political orientation if not birth), as blue today as during the Civil War. Reagan had served as governor of a Western (but more often than not blue) state, California. Yet no one described Carter as a cowboy, even if some of the farming jobs he held in his youth might have resembled that form of work. Reagan, who never held any such jobs, wore a Stetson as a Western movie and TV star and vividly looked the part. His defeat of Carter that year was widely seen as an overwhelming victory for cowboy politics.
Yet by 2008, Ms. Clinton and those who like her believed a new, bold era in progressive politics would reign more or less unchallenged for at least four years were in for a major surprise. Immediately, protesters self-identifying as "the tea party" suddenly emerged to oppose, often in loud, angry, even incendiary language, all of those liberal values that Obama, Clinton, and Biden represent. Though all three are, by objective assessments, moderates who lean slightly left of center, they were quickly posited by right-wing radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh as “extremists.” Limbaugh proffered a vision of the incoming administration that most tea partiers were eager to accept. Notably, Obama’s dream for a universal health-care program would become their key rallying point, decried as symbolic of his supposed desire for ever more intense attacks on the rights of individual Americans as well as on “states’ rights." They attack it despite the many Republicans, including both presidents Bush, who admitted the need for such a program. In fact, Obama’s plan was modeled on the one Republican Mitt Romney enacted while he was governor of Massachusetts and on which, ironically, he would oppose Obama in the 2012 presidential election campaign.
Those who started the tea-party movement, of course, came up with the name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773. That event took place when a group of colonists dressed as Indians dumped crates of tea sitting unopened on British merchant ships in Boston Harbor into the water rather than purchase and consume it. In large part, the twenty-first-century naming resulted from a misconception of what precipitated that act of civil disobedience some 235 years earlier. Tea partiers of today are outspoken in favoring the lowest taxes possible, with some extremists calling for an end to all taxes. They operate under the impression that angry colonists were moved to open rebellion by high taxes imposed by the British government. In actuality, when taxes on tea, stamps, and other commodities were raised, colonists protested "taxation without representation.” However much they disliked higher taxes, there is no evidence whatsoever in any legitimate history of that era that colonists would have resorted to violence over money alone. They were expected to take on full responsibilities of English citizens (paying taxes) without exercising the essential rights of citizens (electing their own politicians to at least argue against such taxes in the British Parliament). As the Obama administration did not attempt to limit the voting rights of Americans in any area of the country, red states included, comparisons to the Boston Tea Party are bogus, however one feels about taxes in our time, high, medium, or low.
The tea-party movement does serve as a venue for people from any state (in the North and East, too, even as there are liberals, Ms. Clinton once among them, in the South and West) who see themselves essentially as traditionalists in politics and religion. From this perch they vent their frustrations at what they perceive as the emergence of an America fundamentally different in nature from what it once was. Or, perhaps, they decry a country so different from the mythic America they believe existed but that on closer examination proves to be the stuff of legend rather than fact. Though he was speaking about the people of Texas specifically, David McComb—a well-regarded historian and professor emeritus at Colorado State University—might also have been considering tea partiers, the red-state mentality wherever it may exist, and adherents of cowboy politics when he asserted: “They have a kind of macho, frontier, independent attitude of ‘I can do what I damn well please and nobody else can tell me.’” The point of view professor McComb describes is, in some ways, more characteristic of the civil-libertarian sensibility than of conventional conservatism of a Republican Party nature. As to the tea-party movement itself, not all who espouse its varied proposals identify as Republicans, though certainly more do than those who express an alliance with Democrats. A great many prefer to call themselves independents.
Yet the presumed tea-party view is conservative in at least one sense: the belief that the best days are gone, that a golden age has come and passed, and that an authentically American way of life can only be redeemed by attempting to bring those glory days back. This is evident in the title of one popular recent book, Cowboy Values: What America Once Stood For. To again quote McComb, such people “cling to a mythical past of the cowboy" and choose to believe that such political values, coupled with old-time religion, are the proper means to bring back that faded American hero figure. The yearned-after past the professor describes is imaginary, not actual. It derives not from history books but Hollywood movies and diverse other aspects of popular culture, from such toys for tots as gun and holster sets to the marketing of cigarettes by the Marlboro Man.
There are fairy tales for adults in the form of big, generic films, culminating in How the West Was Won (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Mitchell, 1962) and bygone TV shows including Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. And for children we have the singin’ cowboy mini-epics of the 1930s and '40s and TV shows of the 1950s starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as well as The Lone Ranger and, with Autry as its executive producer via his Flying A Productions, Buffalo Bill, Jr. When scrutinized in terms of true literature marked by historicity, that area generally known as the West, perceived by our mythologists as an American Camelot, has nothing more to do with the actual frontier experience than the vision of King Arthur’s court in the Tinseltown musical film Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1957) had in common with the primitive mud huts surrounded by a crude wooden wall that served as its inspiration. The ongoing vision of the Round Table and its knights in armor of a type that would not exist for another thousand years conveyed values of an idealized order, communicated as romanticized fantasy. These qualities became ever more enchanting and glorious with each successive retelling. Such a Camelot was the invention of latter-day poets like Thomas Malory and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, eager to create origination myths that would bolster patriotism in times of need. This precisely describes the function of the West in our own iconography and narratives, the key danger being that the most naïve among us may insist this lovely fantasy was once actual and that a Dream West can be reclaimed in our time.
Although printed works, from the highest level through middlebrow fiction to cheap dime novels, have had a significant part in the creation of our myth, nothing can compare to the impact of the movies for what critic Robert Warshow has referred to as “the immediate experience.” Seeing is believing, as an old adage contends. So people who “saw” that mythic frontier vividly realized in endless films starring John Wayne and other genre greats believed in it as a tacit reality, no matter how completely manufactured such shared American faux memories of the good old days may have been. “It’s only a movie," filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is supposed to have said when people took his films far too literally. Today, true believers trying to bring back what never was, to quote McComb once more, “join a tea-party group and strap on a six-gun and strut around.” McComb here specifically refers to the already mentioned movement that came into being shortly after (and to a large degree as a result of) the election of Obama. Thus, many who do not support the tea party perceive it in racist terms, citing nasty caricatures of President Obama as an earlier, less-developed form of primate; the images surfaced at rallies including those held in Chicago on February 19, 2009, and in forty cities nationwide on February 27. Almost all those who claim to speak for the movement deny racist motives, saying the loose national populist movement—rather than "party" in an old-politics sense—sprang from dissatisfaction with mainstream Republican leaders, among them Mitt Romney, and a desire to realign, reorganize, and restructure the Republican Party by seizing control of its grassroots elements to make it truer to an “origination” view of the U.S. Constitution.
For this reason, many tea partiers apparently see themselves less as conservatives, in any old-fashioned sense, than as civil libertarians, with a fierce sense of independence. They often refer to U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) as the movement‘s “Granddaddy"; they more or less suggest that America ought to have been fashioned as a confederacy, not a federalist nation. (In fact, of course, it was, though the Articles of Confederation proved to be a disastrous approach.) While most old-time, conventional Republicans had no trouble embracing demands for cutting taxes, other, more radical aspects caused loyalists like Karl Rove to speak in less than glowing terms about movement darling Sarah Palin, among outspoken figures including Governor Rick Perry of Texas. To the delight of tea partiers and the deep consternation of those who oppose them, Perry came to appear extreme, even subversive, when he dared to proclaim that “Texas can leave the union if it wants to!” given enough dissatisfaction with new policies emanating from Washington during the age of Obama.
In interviews with the mainstream press, Perry railed against Obama policies for “redistributing the wealth.”26 He said the beginning of the end of a U.S. golden age came with the 1930s New Deal, which he perceived as transforming a capitalist country into a socialist one: "If Americans want to really go back and historically engage when we really got off track, it started with Franklin Roosevelt and the start of the Great Depression and the maneuvering of Roosevelt (to) create government programs (and) agencies."
For Perry and like-minded Americans, the end of what was best came when rugged individualism that allowed people—and, in time, corporations—to make money in unrestricted ways gave way to a sense of community in addressing demands of the working class to achieve a minimum standard of living by federal intervention on local situations if the problems could not be settled closer to home. No more villainous concept existed than the reality and ideology of unions, which came into their own during Roosevelt’s long tenure (1933–1945). This helps to explain Perry’s glowing admiration for the right-to-work status of the Lone Star State, where no person can be forced to join a union. Here, then, is cowboy politics, as the concept came down to us, beginning with the failed presidential bid of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and proceeding to the successful ones of Reagan and both Bushes, father and son.
As for working definitions of "red state" and/or "cowboy politics" at this writing, a Newsweek piece in April 2010 describes Perry, then governor of Texas and a potential Republican nominee to oppose Obama in the 2012 presidential election, as standing “for less government and more growth, for freedom and against bureaucracy, for Texas and against Washington.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the article emphasizes the cowboy qualities of this self-made man: Perry was “raised in a ranch house with no running water in the West Texas town of Paint Creek" and is "ruggedly handsome in a Marlboro Man sort of way.” Not all Texans, much less all red-staters, supported Perry or his politics, particularly ideas like secession that struck even some conservatives as too volatile. Others considered Perry’s cowboy image as just that, a well-orchestrated ruse on the order of George H. W. Bush, a Harvard graduate, deciding that an “Aw, shucks!” façade would help him overcome his aging-preppy reputation and win the presidency. For some observers, Perry appeared to be “all sizzle and no steak” or, to employ an even choicer bit of Texana, “all hat and no cattle.” The image, though, did come across.
Thus Rick Perry of Texas could be posited as the opposite of Jimmy Carter of Georgia. No one could describe the gentle Carter as in any way resembling a cowboy, much less a Marlboro Man who rode the TV West in tobacco ads to the tune of The Magnificent Seven movie theme (until, in yet another example of federal intervention in free-trade America, liberal politicians saw to it that TV cigarette ads were banned owing to their ability to hook impressionable audiences on a product dangerous to one’s health). Superstar John Wayne provided the template for the Marlboro Man image, right down to the Duke's cancer from smoking. In this he resembled the original Marlboro Man, David McLean, who died from using the product he had made his fortune hawking.
All the same, Wayne had this to say about the election of Carter to the presidency when the star accepted an invitation to Carter’s inaugural ceremony: "I’m pleased to be present and accounted for in this capital of freedom to witness history as it happens—to watch a common man accept the uncommon responsibility he won fair and square by stating his case to the American people." By “common,” Wayne likely did not mean to imply that Carter was ordinary or average in terms of his abilities. Love or hate Carter and his presidency, he clearly was exceptional, as Wayne well knew and appreciated, regardless of how their political views conflicted. The term “common” also describes Perry, again whether any observer does or does not care for that politician’s positions. What Wayne apparently admired in the man from Plains, Georgia, was Carter’s actualization of the American Dream. Likewise, presidents Ford, Reagan, and Obama, but not Kennedy or either of the Bushes, exemplified the essential American vision of leaders who hailed from the humblest of origins, beginning with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, becoming the top dogs, the foremen of this ranch of a country we call America.
Continuing in that vein, Wayne went on to admit, "I know I’m a member of the loyal opposition—accent on the loyal! I’d have it no other way." The trails of conservative cowboy-movie star John Wayne and liberal president Jimmy Carter would cross at least once more on an occasion that defined them both and confounds any simplistic notion of the man known as "Duke." Politics, as the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows. Few could seem as polar as Wayne and Carter. Yet, a problem all but forgotten today dominated the American political scene between mid-October 1977 and early April 1978, bringing the two together again. This was the heated debate over the Panama Canal. Two treaties called for the canal to be returned to the Panamanian government by 2000. Carter hoped to accomplish this sooner rather than later. Though opposition to his plan was to a degree bipartisan, mainly it hailed from the right, notably from the man who would shortly became the king of cowboy politics, Ronald Reagan, whom Wayne mostly wholeheartedly supported.
To a degree, Reagan’s desire to serve as spokesman in this debate arose not only from honest concerns about the plan but also from aspirations for the presidency. He had failed in his challenge to Republican Ford a few years earlier for their party’s nomination and was already actively seeking that position for the 1980 contest. Meanwhile, Carter had come to be regarded as weak and, as such, vulnerable in his upcoming reelection bid. Aware of this and eager to win back the White House, Republicans created a “pecking party” order of politics, attacking any Carter position less because they believed it wrong than because each instance in which they could embarrass the sitting Democrat offered another stepping-stone to victory in 1980. They attacked Carter's position on the Panama Canal, although Democratic president Lyndon Johnson and Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford also had pushed for the swift legal return of the canal to the Panamanian people. Clearly, then, most opposition to Carter on this issue had less to do with political philosophy in any ideological sense than with party politics in the basest form.
From that angle, the opposition was less than loyal, setting America’s best interests aside to focus on those of the Republican Party. Reagan did express what appeared a heartfelt concern that many conservatives in the GOP and among Democratic ranks shared: worries that Carter’s move would amount to the full “surrender (of) American property” deemed vital to national security” and further the “American decline” in the nation's worldwide power base. At that moment, Reagan put his old cowboy hat from B Westerns back on, establishing his political image.36 He would become to American politics what he had once been, on a minor level, in popular culture and what Wayne more than anyone else represented: the Westerner, the "red-stater" long before that term came into existence, or more simply put, "the cowboy." Yet that term has more than one definition. One is the actual, poorly paid, blue-collar worker who rode the range during the nineteenth century and continues to do so today. The other is the hero of American myth, the Lancelot of our Dream West. Reagan might be seen, at least in the Panama Canal context, as standing for the concept of the cowboy as a wild, untamed, often out-of-control fellow who liked to "hoorah" towns, once Dodge City and in this case Washington, D.C.
Wayne, breaking with his friend Reagan, became Carter’s white knight, riding to the rescue in the nick of time, saving a Democrat from the Republicans who had him cornered in a symbolic canyon. On October 12, 1977, Wayne sent an official missive to every D.C. politician, Republican or Democrat, about Carter’s decision: "I support it based on my belief that America always looks to the future) and that our people have demonstrated qualities of justice and reason for the past 200 years."
Back to the future? Perhaps forward to the past. Either way, those are not the words of a conservative, no matter how often Wayne professed to be one. Rather, it represents the ideology of a progressive traditionalist, that fair and balanced thinking person who, too complex to be boxed into any tight political corner, combines the best of conservatism (closely studying what the founding fathers intended and remaining true to their values) with liberalism (firmly believing the future will emerge as better than the past). Tomorrow can be more a golden age than yesterday if we learn from all that has gone before. Here is the delicate balance at the heart of the America idea.
Wayne continued: "That attitude has made our country a great nation. The new treaty modernizes an outmoded relation with a friendly and hospitable country." He also contacted Carter to let him know that here stood the loyal opposition, supporting a man he had voted against, because Wayne believed him to be correct on this issue. The tactic worked: mostly as a result of the Duke’s influence, enough Republicans backed down; the treaty was approved in early April 1978. If Reagan would forever be confused by this single bit of friction between Wayne and him, Carter would never cease to admire the man who arrived on cue like the Seventh Cavalry coming to the rescue of the vulnerable title object in Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), Wayne’s first huge hit. Politics and movies, it would seem, are at least in America absolutely inseparable.
No wonder, then, that Carter would say on Wayne’s passing two years later: “He was larger than life. In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article.” If Reagan embodied cowboy politics, Wayne symbolized something else: the code of the West, based more than anything else on the notion that a man must listen to his heart and head and then, once he has decided for himself on any issue, do the right thing. It is significant to bear in mind and shocking for some to learn that the phrase "the code of the West" did not yet exist during the nineteenth century, the period in which cowboy stories, movies included, are mostly set. It may have been coined in 1921 by one Mildred Sledge, a screenwriter who in two brief years turned out seven silent Westerns, the final among them titled The Code of the West (director unknown). In her films, Sledge—retelling traditional tales from a female point of view—more or less retold Owen Wister’s 1901 seminal piece The Virginian from the perspective of its heroine, Molly. At about this time Zane Grey (1872–1939)—who seized on the declassé dime novel, transforming it into a middle-of-the-road product published in hard-cover editions for middlebrow target consumers—whipped off the rough draft of a short story with that title. His novel The Code of the West would not be published until 1934. That book concerns a stalwart hero who rescues a hapless woman not from the railroad pushing west (railroads and wealthy scoundrels who owned them would be attacked in "serious" fiction like Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus) but from an unscrupulous, self-serving man in a suit, the true black-hearted villain of most generic Westerns. In the process of rescuing the American equivalent of a damsel in distress, the hero proved himself an American Hercules, Southwestern El Cid, or Sir Lancelot of the last frontier.
Grey’s idea for the piece were filmed as early as 1925, directed by William K. Howard, then again in 1929 by J. P. McGowan. The final version, based directly on the novel rather than Grey’s earlier sketch, would become a Hollywood B movie in 1947, directed by William Berke. At this moment Grey’s fiction, both in book and film forms, was about to give way to a more adult order of Western, perhaps best typified by Shane, the 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer and the subsequent film (George Stevens, 1953). The greater point is that the code of the West was a twentieth-century invention, an idealized concept imposed on an earlier period much in the manner that England’s Tennyson anachronistically stamped the concept of chivalry on that fifth- or sixth-century ruler who has come down to us as Arthur, though chivalry would not be codified until centuries after that man lived and died, if in fact he ever even existed. The Code of the West, then, Grey’s book or any of the film versions, expresses an elaborate fantasy of who we were and ought to again become as a people, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the King (1856–1892) and films like Camelot and Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981) express for the British Isles. Romantic notions of earlier, grander times and people extend deep in time to heroes on the order of Perseus or perhaps Theseus, these even earlier Greek conceptions of the strong, silent hero who arrives to conquer a monstrous Minotaur and save the people of Mycenae, particularly some lovely virgin, from a fate worse than death.
There is not a whit of evidence that such people ever existed, in ancient Greece, in medieval England, or on our own wild frontier. If a coalition of Greeks did follow a king named Agamemnon to Ilium, they did so as pirates eager to sack the city, not noble gentlemen hoping to restore honor to Helen, the supposedly abducted wife of Menelaus who more likely ran off with Paris by choice. Such figures can be wholly created, as in Zane Grey’s fiction. Or actual people like Wyatt Berry Earp can be recast, as was done by Stuart N. Lake, a writer claiming to be an objective biographer while swallowing tall tales without any hesitation and relating them verbatim, in the process giving a semblance of history to nostalgic gossip. In time his book Frontier Marshal (1939) led to endless films and TV shows. Owing to this reimaging of flawed if fascinating persons, entertainment from Hollywood was believed when seen, despite being only movies; the consummate craftsmanship of the best films, particularly those of Ford, added to the impact with My Darling Clementine in 1946. More recent forays into the Western tend to be of a revisionist nature, films like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007) denying the very code of the West embodied in the original (Delmer Daves, 1957). The popular HBO TV series Deadwood (2004–2006) might be thought of as an outright attack on good ol’ Gunsmoke and other shows from the golden age of the TV Western, when actors such as James Arness brought the John Wayne image as well as the code of the West to the small screen.
All the same, the attitudes of tea partiers and others appear to be based on one absolute idea: that the charming fabrications of the twentieth century in which artists and entertainers of varied creative gifts rewrote the American experience from the nineteenth century in romanticized terms ought to be the source of our daily political and religious lifestyles in the twenty-first. More often than not, such a desire is based on the heretofore unchallenged belief that those bygone Western texts, in print or on celluloid, offered what we would today call a red-state vision, traditionalist and conservative. On closer examination, nothing could be further from the truth.
Cowboy Politics: Roosevelt through Reagan
1. To Die in the West: The O.K. Corral, History versus Film
We’ll be waitin’ fer ya, Marshal, at the O.K. Corral!
—Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine, 1946
Truth or dare! Watch any classic Western about the O.K. Corral gunfight, from the first, Law and Order (Edward L. Cahn, 1932), through what might be considered the last, Hour of the Gun (John Sturges, 1967). Odds are you will come away with the impression that this shoot-out in Tombstone, Arizona, was the culmination of a long-standing feud between the Earps and their adversaries the Clantons or, in those films that play this historical situation on a metaphoric canvas, as an unavoidable conflict between good lawmen and evil outlaws, with (as Superman’s creators might put it) truth, justice, and the American way winning out. In such cases the O.K. Corral incident is presented in the simplest of terms, a real-life allegory posited in black and white. But these are literary or cinematic truths. And as such, they are subjective: interpretations by artists, entertainers, or the journeyman storytellers who occupy some middle ground between the two.
Importantly, there is a more objective truth, what we might call the historical one. This did not appear in theatrical movies until the genre we call the Western had seemingly run its course. At last, such rare "oaters," as they were once nicknamed, as Tombstone (George Pan Cosmatos, 1993) and Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan, 1994) projected a more modern, in some regards postmodern, sensibility onto that nineteenth-century stage. These films—the former a solid box-office success, the latter something of a disaster—came closer to recapturing rather than reinventing the past. Way back when, in the West that "was" as compared to the Dream West of old movies, any and all pressing social issues were as complex as they are today, defying codification as moral absolutes. The mundane build-up to the O.K. Corral incident had to do with control of the economics in a still emergent community. Control would be decided, as always in America, through a political process.
In reality, the situation came down to this: an area newly redistricted, owing to political maneuverings, as Cochise County proved ripe in silver, as such providing financial rewards for whichever faction won the election for sheriff, who traditionally served as the collector of taxes. The bloody gun battle between the Earps and Clantons, so central to Hollywood Westerns, was actually an unexpected offshoot of this considerably larger power play. According to researchers, it also appears in retrospect as an avoidable incident rather than, as movies and TV have it, a fated consequence.
The two men at the center of this long duel were not, as in the most artistic film on the subject, My Darling Clementine, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Neumann Hayes “Old Man” Clanton (Walter Brennan). Nor did it come down to, as in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges, 1957), Earp (Burt Lancaster) versus Neumann’s oldest son, Isaac or "Ike" (Lyle Bettger). The primary conflict took place between Earp and John Behan, a man ignored in the former and marginalized as a fictional figure (Cotton Wilson, enacted by Frank Faylen) in the latter. In his position as sitting sheriff, Behan collected the taxes. Here was the key to quick wealth. Now, though, Behan’s ability to continue in that role had, beginning in early 1881, grown doubtful. At last he had to face a considerable challenger, newcomer Wyatt Earp, a professional gambler and sometimes deputy to his older brother Virgil, Tombstone’s appointed town marshal. However high-falutin’ that term sounds, thanks to myth makers including Stuart N. Lake, frontier marshal was a low-paying, less than lofty position consisting mainly of arresting drunken cowboys and other routine chores.
Every bit as ambitious as Behan, likely driven more by his earnest desire to finally succeed in a capitalist system than by any God-given inspiration to make the West safe for incoming pioneers, Earp intensely wanted to become the sheriff.6 In an election as vicious, nasty, and low-down as any to take place during the twenty-first century, Earp lost. With that defeat at the polls his dreams turned to dust, a circumstance most early filmed "biographies" fail to mention, much less portray. Yet those movies were basically mythic, set on a Hollywood, not historical, frontier. As to reality, now or then, win the election and rake in profits; lose and you are back to collecting miniscule fines for jailing bums.
This is not the vision of the Old West we discover in pre-1970 films or the paperbacks, comic books, and dime novels or the elaborate stage performances that preceded them.7 All offered romanticized conceptions of who these people had been and what they hoped to achieve. Even when the incidents were accurately portrayed (this in itself rare), the key motivations of the men who were presented to readers and audiences were idealized fabrications. These visions disappeared following the social, political, and cultural revolution of the late 1960s. A new type of Western emerged that debunked previous legends. Some, like the anti-Custer Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), offered brilliant cinema. Others, including the anti-Earp Doc (Frank Perry, 1971), were embarrassing misfires. What they and many others projected was a nouveau attitude toward the past. Initially, this was taken as far more honest, if only because they offered an alternative or revisionist view. In truth, negativism is not necessarily any truer to life than positive visions. Today, revisionist films seem less realistic than cynical and as simplistic as pre-1970s Westerns.
Still, in the age of political assassinations, the disastrous war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, it is not difficult to understand why a large number of Americans agreed with a statement offered by director Dennis Hopper. His Easy Rider (1969) starred Peter Fonda, son of John Ford’s Wyatt Earp, as a biker named Wyatt. Their modern motorcycles took the place of old-fashioned mounts. Wyatt was accompanied by a Billy the Kid pal (Hopper's character). Easy Rider brought a radical vision to mainstream American movie houses during a turbulent era of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that forever altered the nation. The filmmaker, who earlier had played supporting parts in mythic films starring John Wayne, announced: “I don’t believe in heroes any more.” It is important to note that a decade later, Hopper did a total about-face. During the 1980 presidential election he supported Reagan over Carter.
In part, Hopper's support for Reagan can be explained as a pendulum swing away from what appeared to many as the failed progressivism of the Carter years. Also, there was the sense that Republican Reagan, much like the Democrat Jack Kennedy of some twenty years earlier, radiated movie-star charisma. In Reagan’s case, that is what he had earlier been. Reagan was often associated with the Western, hosting the TV series Death Valley Days and playing a variation of Wyatt Earp in the 1953 remake of Law and Order (Nathan Juran). How fascinating that the film’s title would, a quarter century later, provide the anthem for its star’s presidential run.
The Reagan campaign relied heavily on what came to be called cowboy politics. The most famous image of Reagan from that time is a shot of him standing proudly in front of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. It is intriguing to note, then, that back in 1954 Reagan wanted to play a historical figure who died there, David Crockett, in his friend Walt Disney’s TV miniseries. The role went instead to newcomer Fess Parker. Reagan’s eventual run for the presidency would be based on an unstated assertion: America, the now-reformed hippie Dennis Hopper included, wanted—perhaps needed—to again believe in heroes. In time, Dennis Hackin’s screenplay for Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood, 1980) directly addressed this issue in a film released only months after Reagan assumed the presidency. The film’s title character (Clint Eastwood), last of the traveling Western showmen, stages bold episodes for ever-smaller audiences. Eventually he is unmasked as a fraud, an Easterner dedicated to keeping the myth of the Old West alive. The film’s primary point is that this masquerade does not matter, that desire qualifies him as a hero.
How convenient for Ronald Reagan, then, that when it comes to choosing the traditional heroes for a uniquely American popular culture, the public has never been mildly intrigued by those remarkable people who won the Revolution or created the Constitution. This period constituted the true birth of the nation. In its place, we instead worship or, conversely, disparage what became a preferred origin myth—the taming of the West. Willie Nelson put it better than anyone: "My heroes have always been cowboys." Willie, it is worth noting, is at this writing a rarity of rarities, the contemporary country-western musical artist who dares stand firm as a liberal. Though we perceive in the twenty-first century a great barrier between red and blue states and their corresponding value systems, that outlaw-artist’s worship of the man who rides tall in the saddle makes clear that even this distinction is too simplistic.
The Hollywood cowboy hero, atop some magnificent horse (in comparison to a lowly working man who roamed the range on a wasted nag) became the great American icon. No matter; legends possess a truth of their own. The Western remains an American myth, enshrined by some as the ongoing essence of the country, attacked by others as an outdated, politically incorrect sensibility. If Nelson allows us any insight, though, the West offers a rich, complex vision that cuts across temporal political barriers.