Why Do We Say That?

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When, a little more than 30 years ago, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci asked Henry Kissinger how he had attained “incredible superstar status,” becoming “almost more famous and popular” than President Richard M. Nixon, Dr. Kissinger, then the national security adviser to the President, immediately conjured up a vision of the Old West: “I’ve always acted alone. Americans admire that enormously. Americans admire the cowboy leading the caravan alone astride his horse, the cowboy entering a village or city alone on his horse.”

Lately the cowboy image has been much in the news, with the term frequently being applied in a disparaging sense to President George W. Bush. As Paul Burka, executive editor of Texas Monthly, put it, “Foreign critics see Mr. Bush as Billy the Kid—lawless, violent, solitary and prone to shoot first and ask questions later.”

Mr. Bush may have opened himself up to this sort of criticism with his talk of bringing back Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” but the characterization predates September 11, 2001. For example, a headline in the Toronto Staroi April 5, 2001, announced: CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER LETS LOOSE ON “COWBOY” BUSH.

The first cowboys were simply that—boys (or men, regarded as boys) who looked after cows; the word is dated in this sense in The Oxford English Dictionary to 1725. The term was given a new twist in the New World, however. During the American Revolution, Westchester County, immediately to the northeast of New York City, was the scene of much guerrilla strife, with gangs of rebels and Loyalists conducting raids on one another. Rebels called Loyalist marauders “cowboys” or “skinners.” A century later Noah Brooks offered this explanation of the old meaning of cowboy in one of his popular books for boys, The Boys of Fairport (1898): “The cowboys were the worst kind of Tories; they went around in the bushes armed with guns and tinkling a cow-bell so as to beguile the patriots into the brush hunting for cows.”

Urban cowboys appeared not long after the Revolution. From the Middlebury, Vermont, National Standard of February 27, 1821: “At the same time the streets appeared thronged with another younger set, hooting and howling, savage like, and in imitation of the licentious cow-boys and sooty chimney sweeps in the suburbs of an ill-regulated city.”

Cowboy in the modern sense, meaning a man who works on a cattle ranch, has been dated to 1849. The earliest known example comes from a history of the Mexican War: “The Mexican rancheros … ventured across the Rio Grande … but they were immediately attacked by the Texan ‘cowboys.’” The quote marks around the word suggest that the usage was new at the time.

By the start of the twentieth century, the wild, woolly ways of Western cowboys had given the term its modern, negative connotations. Thus, following the assassination of William McKinley, a longtime backer of the President—the Ohio senator Mark Hanna, who had been against Theodore Roosevelt’s nomination for Vice President—memorably tagged TR with the term, combining both its Western and disparaging senses: “Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States.”

Backers of the current President prefer to interpret the term in a complimentary way, of course. As Vice President Dick Cheney told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” last March, “The notion that the President is a cowboy—I don’t know, is a Westerner—I think that’s not necessarily a bad idea. I think the fact of the matter is he cuts to the chase.”

The meaning of this particular icon, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

Hugh Rawson