Bush the cowboy, take two

Posted: Feb 26, 2004 12:00 AM

A year ago, just before the Iraq War began, Lexis-Nexis showed 800 articles over one month's time linking the words "Bush" and "cowboy," almost always in a derogatory way. This year, my search revealed "only" 610 -- so maybe reporters are getting tired of beating the drum.

Or maybe European and American liberals who attack President Bush in this way (as they attacked Ronald Reagan) are realizing that for most Americans, "cowboy" is not a bad word. As one reader of this column who is a working cowboy, Bo Bowman of Montana, wrote last year, "A cowboy is someone who is honorable and who does the right thing even if it's going to cost him."

What to do about criticism of the president's "'High Noon' mentality"? Bring it on. The plot of that archetypal 1950s Western has the Miller gang coming to town to shoot the sheriff and, it appears, shoot up the town, as well. The sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, searches for citizen support but gets reactions like these: "We're not peace officers. This ain't our job." "This whole thing has been handled wrong." "What are we all getting so excited about? How do we know Miller's on that train, anyway?"

For those listening to Democratic primary chatter about Iraq, words like those sound familiar. What's sad is that the last words in "High Noon's" town debate are the pastor's: "The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you're asking me to tell my people to go out and kill, and maybe get themselves killed, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I'm sorry." Sheriffs or presidents, though, cannot say "sorry" and leave it at that. They have to act, realizing that whatever they do will harm tranquility. Eden is not an option.

In "High Noon," the sheriff -- eventually aided by his pacifist wife, who at the end cannot stick to her principles when it means seeing her husband killed -- saves the town by shooting Miller. Regardless of what we learn now about the existence of WMDs, Cowboy Bush acted last year in a responsible way, given that spies from every land believed Saddam was armed and dangerous to other countries. Even apart from WMDs, look at Saddam's terrorist connections and the way he tortured and murdered his own people.

But acting responsibly is no fun, and the heroes of good 1950s Westerns often made decisions that saved the day but made their future days harder. The "High Noon" sheriff and his wife leave town at the end of the movie, their relations with its citizens destroyed. The sheriff could have put off the problem to tomorrow, to someone else's watch, but instead he saw that the only choices available were bad ones, and then chose the best of the bad lot.

That's what Sheriff Bush has done. Like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy during the two decades after World War II -- when the Cold War choices were appeasement of tyrants, mutual destruction or a long, tough struggle against communism -- this president has chosen the course that requires arduous commitment over a long period of time. He won't get the votes of those who think Miller gang members will be our friends if we only understand the root causes of their alienation.

I'm 53 and had hoped that my children would not live in a world of such international tension, but they do. It seems that every generation has to face choices that don't get any easier. This would be sad, except for some good news sprinkled through the Bible and recapped in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation: God will eventually wipe away every tear. President Bush understands that, as well.