It was 1986, and I was working for the U.S. Department of Education. A new Chinese (Red) ambassador had arrived in town and I was having dinner with him. I was supposed to make him feel welcome, sweet talk him a bit, get to know him as much as I could, and allow him to get to know something about us. All the deeds had already been done, agreements signed, difficulties overcome. Since there were larger geopolitical issues at stake, and decisions made far above my pay grade, the only good I could do was to talk.
We talked about ancient China, its long and complex history, its vision of itself as the center of things, and so on. The conversation revolved around civilization and high culture and what they were and how they are to be achieved. With typical Chinese delicacy and circumspection, the ambassador—an intellectual one might say—still was clear on the following point: America was young and brash, coarse and strong, acquisitive and inventive. His host country clearly was unlearned and unsophisticated, not open to moral ambiguities. You think there is a wrong and a right, he said. This was a simple country.
I didn’t disagree with him on these matters but, when he asked what book or what sort of books most represented the American mind and character, I took the opportunity to speak the truth to a power. I told him to read Western novels (starting with The Virginian and Hondo) and see Western movies (starting with "High Noon" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"); that if he wanted to understand the American character he would have to understand the American cowboy. He seemed surprised, but I bet he wasn’t. Foreign sophisticates understand what this means and that’s why they called Reagan a cowboy then. For some reason, they think we take this to be insulting. They should know better.
That they don’t know better is again revealed because President Bush is also called a cowboy by our sophisticated and diplomatic European allies. (That no one called Clinton a cowboy I bring to your attention without comment.) This name calling of Dubya has become ever more loud since September 11, and has become deafening since he said we would take care of Iraq on our own if we saw fit. His remarkable speech trying to convince the U.N. to try not to become irrelevant has revivified this art of cowboy name-calling. And this is good. Dubya ought to be proud.
Look, I said, the cowboy by definition is a heroic type. He is alone. He is always surrounded by chaos or lawlessness, which he has to fix. Even when he wears a tin star, he is somehow more than the law, he is the law’s executioner. He cleans up the dusty town in "High Noon" so it is fit to live in for women and children. The cowboy is the enemy of fear. But the law that he helps establish proves insufficient. The law finds the murderer guilty yet he is not hung, and when he is allowed out he comes back for revenge. The newly married marshal, no longer really a law man, stays in spite of the fact that the ordinary people are too afraid to help him. Without allies that he should have been able to count on—because of the good that he had done in the past—he is alone again. He kills the outlaws. Law and civilization are re-established. The ordinary people spill out into the street, no longer afraid.
When John Wayne kills Liberty Valance, the man who is terrorizing the town, in cold blood, he does so because Valance would have killed the one who represents the law in a legal gunfight. Not only would Jimmy Stewart have died, but the law itself would have died in Shinbone. It is always thus, the cowboy somehow stands outside the law, yet for the sake of the law and for the sake of right. He becomes a lifeline to those who are afraid. Then he rides into the sunset, alone.
When the grizzled old marshal confronts the four outlaws in the climax of "True Grit" he calls out: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which will it be?" Their leader sneers and says: "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man." The cowboy angrily cries, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and charges at them with both guns blazing. Four outlaws did not live another day to menace civilization.
The ambassador in the mid-1980s understood all this and more. Yet this knowledge is always somehow overlooked by both our friends and enemies, as is the case now. They still mistake moral ambiguity for wisdom, not allowing for evil or looking for its root causes in order to explain it away so they don’t have to act. But we Americans understand the simple things, and we like our presidents to wear cowboy boots and explain that they want the bad guy dead or alive, and feel perfectly at home with the Teddy Roosevelt quote a visitor finds on Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s desk: "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." Eventually we will also ride off into the sunset, but not yet, not yet.