PORTLAND, Ore. — On the eve of the Iraqi invasion, the president's advisers were working hard to embed George W. Bush inside the script of the American Western. Rejecting the widespread European frustration with Mr. Bush's Lone Ranger act, Vice President Dick Cheney used his "Meet the Press" appearance to make clear that the president is "a cowboy" who "cuts to the chase." Mr. Bush's blunt talk, the vice president told Tim Russert, is "exactly what the circumstances require."
The president has done his part. For some time now, Mr. Bush has been obliging, dutifully working his way through the Western cliché checklist: "smoke 'em out of their holes"; "hunt 'em down"; "go it alone"; "wanted: dead or alive."
The image being invoked by the president and his posse has deep roots in the American soil. But if Mr. Bush's cowpoke credentials seem to be all simple syntax and bodacious belt buckle, his policies actually flout the cowboy charter. Teddy Roosevelt, in "The Cattle Country of the Far West," called cowboys "quiet, rather self-contained men." The president's actions have violated the basic terms of the American Western romance and, thereby, the terms by which we call ourselves Americans. He's declared war on a foundational national myth.
It's worth recalling that the cowboy of the myth wasn't trigger happy and he wasn't a dominator. He carried a gun to protect himself and his cattle — cattle that didn't even belong to him. His mission was their safe passage, and by extension, the safe passage of the civilizing society to follow. And his honor was grounded on his civilized refusal to fire first. "Didn't I tell you he'd not shoot?" says a spectator to a gun fight that didn't happen in "The Virginian," Owen Wister's 1902 novel. "He's a brave man," he adds. "It's not a brave man that's dangerous. It's the cowards that scare me."
"The Virginian" is the urtext of the cowboy myth. Its protagonist, like Wister and Wister's old Harvard classmate Teddy Roosevelt, was a transplanted Easterner whose manhood was fashioned in the West. "No man traveling through or living in the country need fear molestation from the cowboys," wrote Roosevelt. They "treat a stranger with the most whole-souled hospitality" and "what can almost be called a grave courtesy."
Wister dedicated "The Virginian" to Teddy Roosevelt. Our 20th-century presidents have lived under the sway of its central ethic, and never more so than in the grave buildup to conflict. Understanding the necessity to at least appear to uphold the credo, no matter what the reality, William McKinley took advantage of the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor, Franklin Roosevelt waited (some say intentionally) until our fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and Lyndon Johnson contrived the Tonkin Gulf "incident" before entering their respective wars.
One cannot imagine F.D.R., before declaring war on Japan, or even Ronald Reagan before Grenada, pumping a fist and saying of himself, "Feel good" — as President Bush did before he announced the beginning of the Iraq war. Indeed, the doctrine of pre-emptive warfare flies in the face of the humble, reluctant cowboy myth Mr. Bush holds so dear.
Of course, American identity has always contained competing models; even the original frontiersman, the cowboy's immediate ancestor, had two faces. He was either Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett — that is, either the man who rode into the wilderness to build and nurture a society called Booneville, or the man who ventured out only to collect and count the pelts. In his time, Daniel Boone was the hero at the heart of our myth, the Indian fighter turned homesteader, the war-hating American archetype. As Richard Slotkin observed in "Regeneration Through Violence," his history of the American frontier, for this kind of man "solitary hunting trips are, not ends in themselves, but means to a social end . . . the ultimate creation of a better society." By contrast, Davy Crockett was, as V. L. Parrington, the literary critic, dubbed him, "a frontier wastrel," a rapacious aggressor and "a huge Western joke."
As the nation industrialized, however, Crockett's heaps of dead pelts became the equivalent of America's capitalistic might, and his own profile began to rise from pathetic joke to vaunted hunter and Alamo hero. The honored activity was no longer husbandry but dominance.
These two contesting ethics were neatly framed at the close of World War II in the debate over our future. Were we on the threshold of "the century of the common man," a phrase coined by Henry Wallace and represented by Ernie Pyle's homely soldiers? Or were we on the cusp of "the American Century," defined by Henry Luce, founder of Time Inc., as the nation's manifest right "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit"? Luce's vision won the day.
In this regard, President Bush's self-presentation culminates a progression long in the works. We've been on the way to becoming a different America for a while.
A little more than a year ago, the old and vanishing American mythology of common-man virtue enjoyed an unexpected comeback — in the aftermath of 9/11. That antiquated ethic returned to infuse our romance with the sacrificial firefighters and police officers, and the average citizens martyred in our national tragedy. Its presence was palpable in the self-image of an ordinary embattled people rising to the occasion in countless ways, as if we were once more "out in some strange night caring for each other," as Ernie Pyle wrote of the G.I.'s he chronicled.
Perhaps that is why so many Americans now feel even more painfully the loss of a myth that, in truth, has been on its sickbed for a generation. As the invasion of Iraq began, a lament could be heard across the political spectrum. A letter in The Times seemed typical: "The president was speaking and I realized that an old and dear friend of mine was gone."
What Americans grieve for is not reality. We've carried out regime change before, whether on Chief Sitting Bull or Manuel Noriega. We've also waged elective wars, whether in the Dominican Republic or the Philippines. But to call it a myth is not to diminish its importance. Mythologies are essential to defining who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be. We caught a powerful glimpse of our myth's possibilities, just before its end. Sept. 11 gave us its final spark, like the bright flash that the sun shoots up before it sets for good.
Susan Faludi is author of ``Stiffed:
The Betrayal of the American Man.''
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company