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Commentary :: Politics
Bush and the Wild West Myth
14 Oct 2004
"Texas is as little Bush-Country as Bush born in refined Connecticut and educated at elite Yale University is a cowboy.. Whoever arrives in deepest Texas quickly notices that the image (Texan political-cowboy) is a myth that only still exists in films and politics.."

Election Campaign Road-Trip

By Marc Pitzke

US President George W. Bush likes to present himself as a typical Texan: cowboy hat, broad western grin and short, pithy sentences. However a journey into deepest Texas shows that this cowboy-image is a myth that only exists in films and politics.

[This article originally published in: Spiegel Online, October 11, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,1518.321669,00.html. Spiegel Online correspondent Marc Pitzke reports on the election campaign after a road-trip across the US. The US election will be decided in Pennsylvania, Iowa and New Mexico, not in New York or LA. The voters in the so-called “battleground states” will decide who will lead the country in the next four years.]

Sanderson – It is easy to overlook Sanderson, a couple of wooden kiosks on highway 90 in the middle of the Texan prairie halfway between San Antonio and the Rio Grande. The town contains one gas station, one drug store and the “Lone Star Motel” (with air conditioning). A homemade sign welcomes travelers to the “cactus capital of the world”. However most only want to leave as fast as they can.


Sheriff Turner is on the lookout in his pickup truck at the roadside, ready to step on the gas, gun in his holster and supersize Coke in his holder. Turner is a friendly man who speaks in an easy-going way and moves even more placidly when he gets out of the car. But when someone gets caught in the speed trap, he wont stand for any nonsense and can be very agile.

Speeding drivers – mostly tourists and truckers – are the number 1 source of communal revenue in Sanderson. When the legendary Southern Pacific Railroad ended its passenger traffic in Sanderson a decade ago, the population suddenly shriveled from 3000 to 800. The town withered to a ghost town. Since then, the hole has financed itself from the maximum speed that is reduced here for a few hundred meters on highway 90 to 30 miles per hour. “We have to live from this”, Turner says blinking his eyes.


This was the old Wild West: endless prairie, vast sky and cowboy legends. Once Billy the Kid and Jesse James went on the rampage in the region. Today people here have a “certain boastful gait” as US president George W. Bush recently remarked. Bush has appropriated this strut. He proudly presents himself as a Texan political cowboy – beefy, plain and sanctimonious.
Whoever arrives in deepest Texas quickly notices that this image is a myth that only still exists in films and politics. That this is pure “Bush country” is also a myth. To many, he seems to go against the grain as an election campaign transfer – or they only shrug their shoulders amusedly.

For example, sheriff Turner wears boots, jeans and a cowboy hat only because all this is practical where the sun burns and the northwest wind howls. Yes, he is a registered Republican but only out of family tradition. This has nothing to do with Bush, he protests. People hardly hear about the election campaign in Sanderson. “As I see it”, he says, “this is only theater on both sides.”


The election campaign does not even appear in the local paper, a little leaflet called the “Terrell County News Leader”. The cover headlines are devoted to the belated pay of local employees and the approaching “Prickly Pear Pachanga”, a festival of the cactus of the same name. The prettiest cactus wins the prize of nine dollars.

The republican Turner is in the minority in “Bush-Country”. Sanderson is the epitome of Bush’s Wild West vision. “Most of the people here are democrats”, the sheriff says and adds “but some of them secretly vote republican.”

Four years ago Bush gained 59.3 percent of the votes in his home state Texas. In recent polls, his lead has melted slightly. Texans are not Bush-Fans by nature as often assumed. 17 of the 32 current congresspersons from Texas are democrats. 22 of the last 24 governors of the state have been democrats.


Thus Texas is as little “Bush Country” per se as Bush born in refined Connecticut and educated at the elite Yale University is a cowboy. This is clear in San Antonio, the entrance to the “Wild Wild West” where the bullet holes of the famous revolutionary battle of 1838 can still be seen in the massive oak gates of the Alamo fort.

“Not all Texans are cowboys and not all Texans are for Bush”, says the artist and gallery owner Richard Conn. He himself is the best example. In his “Nueva Street Gallery” in the La Villita artists’ quarter, Conn offers his own works for sale. The paintings represent music and dance or feelings like “subjugation” and “passion”. Soft jazz whispers from a CD-player.

Conn strives to break the stereotype. Instead of jeans, cowboy boots and a Stetson, he wears white slacks, a white shirt and a pair of reading glasses. A cardboard sign in the corn proclaims: “Kerry for America”.

“Bush destroys the middle class and our respect in the world”, Conn says. “His silly Wild West buffoonery degrades us as Texans”, he complains.

San Antonio has a democratic mayor. He has made domestic security, a classic republican theme, into his hobbyhorse. Therefore CNN chose the city “the second-best anti-terrorist city”, second only to New York. The majority of registered voters are democrats. However 52 percent of the people voted for Bush in the 2000 election. Everything is not so simple.

Resistance stirs even in Crawford where Bush likes to demonstratively strut at his weekend ranch for the cameras. The home paper, the “Lone Star Iconoclast”, has withdrawn its support for the president. As a reason, the editor-in-chief Leon Smith says that Bush spends so much time in Crawford to cultivate his cowboy-image. “Bush is a part-time president”, Smith says. “We have a work ethos in Texas. We work hard. We don’t have three months of vacation every year.”

Is Bush a false would-be cowboy? The image of the president as a “hard rider”, the Texan columnist Shane Cory writes, is only “a false mask”. “He is not a really authentic Texan.”


All this leaves Sanderson’s sheriff Turner cold. He will vote for Bush in November, cowboy or not – out of pure custom like so many. Until then, he will be diligently focused on raising local revenue. He caught the last speeding driver at 51 miles per hour.

Even though it is Saturday night, Turner drags a man before the justice of the peace as is customary here with out-of-state traffic offenders. The lay magistrate is a woman who sits at home in her living room and adds the total fine: 60 dollar fine, 40 dollar “court costs”, 30 dollar “traffic fee”, five dollar “custody fee”, four dollars “technical expenses”, three dollars for “security of court buildings” and another three dollars for a mysterious “TFC”. The total is 145 dollars, “cash or money order, no credit cards”.

If the violator does not have enough cash, sheriff Turner personally escorts him to the only automated teller machine in the town, outside at the gas station. Then he shakes his hand and wishes him a good trip: “Very nice to meet you.”
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