Wass ein cowboy. Quel cowboy. Oy vay, a cowboy.
The word "cowboy" is not translatable. It holds its own, no matter the language. It conjures up the American myth greater than life-size on the big screen under a big sky. It's not a myth that easily wraps around a graduate of Yale with an M.A. in business from Harvard. The foreign reporters naturally invoke the cowboy myth as the most convenient handle of derision for George W. Bush. For them, the contemporary cowboy is the American primitive -- unsophisticated, untutored and unrealistic.
But cowboy conjures up the positive, too. Think Gary Cooper in "High Noon." Deserted by his friends, he doesn't rush to the showdown, but accepts the fight thrust upon him. He moves methodically, using his time carefully, letting others know he wants their help but that he's willing to go it alone if he has to because it's the right thing to do. "High Noon" is about courage and cowardice. Most of his friends are cowards. The sheriff's wife, played by the beautiful Grace Kelly, is a Quaker and pleads with him to run from the fight. But he knows (and we know) that what he's doing is for her, too. (Take note, la belle France.) Eventually, standing strong in confronting the evil she cannot escape, she uses the gun. She surprises herself. (Take note, la belle France.)
The cowboy is the American hero because he's a man who acts out of conviction, bred with a sense of place, loyal to those who put their trust in him. The cowboy is a mixed breed, as we all are in America, a blend of the Old World and New, a little (or a lot) of the English, the Irish, the Spanish, the Mexican, the German, the Italian or only Great-Great Granny knows, and she wasn't so sure. The catalogs of movies about cowboys and the Old West are stuffed with different types. Heroism was confronting evil in the shape of a bad man. Saddam wears a black hat.
Colin Powell in this scenario is the cowboy's sidekick, unafraid to tell the boss to be careful but eager to saddle up and ride along to wherever the trail takes them, even to the United Nations to find the necessary friends with courage. Cowboy and sidekick must trust each other, no matter how tough the town, how rough the saloon.
The cowboy myth is the American morality play that illustrates best the true grit that is the measure of the man. Charles Portis created in his novel "True Grit" the quintessential wizened cowboy, a man as tough as his name. Rooster Cogburn was a rascal, but a rascal with the fundamental manly qualities of honesty, decency and personal warmth. His European critics usually can't help noticing those qualities about George W. even when they try not to.
Ronald Reagan was a cowboy in European eyes, too. It's the ruggedness of the Americans that intimidate the effete sophisticates of Europe, invariably leading them to underestimate the instinctive natural abilities of the American hero. An American diplomat who deals with Europeans tells The New York Times that the president's rhetoric drives them crazy in the same way Reagan's did: "It reminds them of what they miss about Clinton. All the stereotypes we thought we had banished for good after Sept. 11 -- the cowboy imagery, in particular -- it's all back."
A cowboy shouldn't be confused with a good ol' boy, though they share certain qualities. Bill Clinton was always eager to show off his knowledge. The effetes can appreciate that. He didn't intimidate them with allusions to the mythology of good fighting evil. The effetes never expected a cowboy to follow Bill Clinton. George W. doesn't walk their walk or talk their talk. They can't understand a man who's home on the range and clearing the brush on the ranch. A cowboy is never a poseur. He calls the shots like he sees them. And sometimes a sheriff or a marshal can get a little help from his friends. The leaders of Italy, Britain, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Portugal and the Czech Republic -- some of "Old Europe" as well as the new -- joined the posse as the clock ticked toward high noon.
Ride 'em cowboy.