I’ve been reading much about and by Ronald Reagan in an effort to craft another chapter for my dissertation-turned-book project. The rhetoric is interesting and sometimes amazing. Here’s Reagan speaking in Oklahoma City at a fund-raising luncheon:
But I always get a thrill out of coming back to the home of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. I seem to remember a famous country and western song warning mothers not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys. The song forgot to say that cowboys can sometimes grow up and be President.
Reagan’s use of “cowboy” rhetoric is essentially what I’m focusing on in my work here. Reagan used it as a kind of magic trick. Of course, he wasn’t a cowboy by any stretch of the imagination, although, like our current President, he owned a “ranch.” Calling Reagan a cowboy is like calling me a mechanic because I once changed my own oil.
Nonetheless, Reagan used the cowboy angle very specifically to collect some working class credibility. The truth is that, despite the careful crafting of his image, Reagan was very far from “working class” for virtually all of his adult life. Some would see through this rhetorical ploy, of course, but many many more took hold of it as a kind of image. Reagan’s embodiment of a more simple America fell in exactly the right moment in history: a 1980s desperately searching for some kind of foundation.
In the midst of this, of course, come a slew of counternarratives, which form the basis of my actual book: McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (which is both in line with Reagan’s vision of the cowboy and far, far from it), Welch’s Fools Crow, Harrison’s Dalva, etc.