Honorable Mention Winner in the 2007 Best Graduate Student Paper Competition: The Media's Frontier Construction of President George W. Bush
Malphurs, Ryan, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
In January 2006, President George W. Bush accepted unscreened questions from students at Kansas State University. David Sanger's New York Times article captured a unique exchange when a student asked a rather unusual and pointed question. The student, curious how the president might have responded to a currently popular cowboy movie, asked, "You're a rancher. A lot of us in Kansas are ranchers. I was just wanting to get your opinion on 'Brokeback Mountain,' if you've seen it yet" (Sanger). The president coyly responded, "I haven't seen it ... I'd be glad to talk about ranching, but I haven't seen the movie" adding further that "I hope you go back to the ranch and farms [as a topic] is what I was about to say" (Sanger). The student's question proves significant, not because he placed the president in the awkward position of addressing homosexuality, but because the student framed the president as "a rancher," identified him with other ranchers in Kansas, and connected the president to a movie about cowboys. The student, like other Americans and global citizens, strongly identifies President Bush with cowboys and frontier/western ideology. As Americans we easily identify our leaders through frontier and western mythology because those myths have served as fundamental archetypes in the development of this nation (see Slotkin; Regeneration Through Violence; Gunfighter Nation, Smith; Lawrence; Rushing "Rhetoric"; Rushing Projecting).
Kathryn Westcott for BB C News notes that American presidents and politicians have associated themselves with cowboys for nearly a century because "the cowboy represents a popular point of reference in American culture ... Teddy Roosevelt was a type of rancher, as was Ronald Reagan, who borrowed heavily from his former film career" (Westcott).1 President Reagan, along with other movie stars like John Wayne, was even inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (Faragher 2). Though not quite as influential as President Reagan, President Carter framed himself as a farmer in his campaigns (Richardson 1). President Johnson also cast himself as a cowboy from Texas, giving cowboy hats as gifts to various dignitaries (Tamony). These presidents easily navigated the roles of a cowboy and a politician, implementing the cowboy when needed and then gracefully returning to a politician. President Bush's presidency, on the other hand, appears marked by the permanent role of a cowboy, with occasional glimmers of the politician.
But how did a man who was born in Connecticut, attended elite institutions of learning, such as Andover, Yale, and Harvard, and whose father was accused of being a "blue-blood" persuade a nation to associate him with foundational cowboy characters like John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, and Buffalo Bill? His east coast elite education would seem to disqualify him from ever achieving the working class role of the heroic cowboy. How did a businessman who failed in the oil industry and who managed a baseball team, ironically named the Texas Rangers, become associated with mythical figures? This paper resolves these questions by exposing how President Bush relies more heavily on the media rather than his formal speeches to perpetuate the image of a western cowboy and a new global frontier.
Frontier Theory and Mythology
In 1890 the United States Census officially marked the closing of the frontier, declaring "the unsettled area has been so broken into isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line" (Turner 1). Frederick Jackson Turner used this declaration by the US Census Bureau to urge scholars to begin examining the historical significance of the frontier, which he describes as the "meeting point between savagery and civilization" (Turner 3). In the liminal position between savagery and civilization Turner noted that America began to formulate its own identity by Kstead[ily] move[ing] away from the influence of Europe," which first brought explorers and pioneers to America, and moving towards "a steady growth of independence on American lines . …