Cowboys and Immigrants

Two dueling archetypes dominated 20th-century American politics. Is it time for them to be reconciled?

American myths: the Frontier and Ellis Island immigrants. (John Springer Collection / Corbis, FPG / Getty Images)
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Starting with Teddy Roosevelt, these two American archetypes have reappeared from time to time as presidential styles and ideological motifs. T.R., the sickly New York City boy who repaired health and heart in the Dakota Badlands, was the first modern Frontier president.

His dramatization of Frontier attitude occurred at the moment of the Spanish-American War, of Senator Albert Beveridge's triumphal jingo about "The March of the Flag." In 1899, sixteen of Teddy's Rough Riders joined Buffalo Bill Cody's touring Wild West show. Gaudy Wild Bill in fringed buckskins told an audience at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha: "The whistle of the locomotive has drowned the howl of the coyote; the barb-wire fence has narrowed the range of the cow-puncher; but no material evidence of prosperity can obliterate our contribution to Nebraska's imperial progress." Imperial Nebraska! When the Frontier grew grandiloquent, it sounded like a passage of Ned Buntline as recited by W. C. Fields.

But in Frontier rhetoric there was often a paradoxical note of elegy and loss, as if the toughest place and moment of the American story was also the most transient, most fragile. By 1918, the Old Bull Moose, reconciled to the Republican Party, was condemning the "social system...of every man for himself" and calling for worker's rights, public housing and day care for the children of mothers working in factories. In nine months, he was dead.

The other Roosevelt, T.R.'s cousin Franklin, became the first Ellis Island president. He came to office not at a moment when America had seemed to triumph, but when it had seemed to fail. In myth, if not in fact, the Frontier sounded the bugle—cavalry to the rescue. Ellis Island's narrative began with Emma Lazarus' disconcerting, hardly welcoming phrases of abjection—"your tired, your poor...the wretched refuse..." Its soundtrack was the street sounds of the pluribus.

John Kennedy—by way of Choate, Harvard and his father's money—claimed to be working a "New Frontier," and though he campaigned as a cold warrior in 1960, he did break new ground with the Peace Corps and the space program and his American University speech on nuclear disarmament. But in memory the New Frontier seems mostly to refer to a gen­erational takeover, more a Sorensen trope in the service of generational ambition than a true departure.

One of the things that made Lyndon Johnson interesting was that he so thoroughly embodied both the Frontier and Ellis Island—and tried to enact both, in the Great Society and in Vietnam. Perhaps it was the conflict between the two ideals that brought him down. A son of the Texas hill country, with its lingering folklore of the Alamo and of long-ago massacres under the Comanche moon, Johnson was also a New Deal Democrat and FDR protégé with all the activist-government Ellis Island instincts. In an interplay of Ellis and the Frontier, he actually tried to bomb Ho Chi Minh into submission while offering to turn Vietnam into a Great Society, full of New Deal projects (dams and bridges and electrification), if only Uncle Ho would listen to reason.

At the Democratic National Convention in 1984, the perfect Ellis Island man, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, conjured up a sweet America that originated in sepia photographs of ships arriving in New York Harbor, the vessels' rails crowded with the yearning faces of people from a dozen countries over there, at the instant of their rebirth, their entry into the American alchemy that would transform them and their children forever. "We speak for the minorities who have not yet entered the mainstream," this son of Italian immigrants proclaimed. "We speak for ethnics who want to add their culture to the magnificent mosaic that is America." He called up Ellis Island that summer of 1984 at the same moment Ronald Reagan of California convinced Americans that they were tall in the saddle again, riding into the sunshine of a new morning in America. The Frontier won that round, by a landslide.

Reagan personified the cowboy universe that sees itself as self-reliant, competent, freedom-loving, morally autonomous, responsible. He owned a ranch and wore cowboy clothes, and in the Oval Office he displayed a passel of sculptures of cowboys and Indians and bucking broncos. In Reagan's exercise room in the family quarters of the White House, his wife, Nancy, had hung a favorite Reagan self-image, a framed photograph showing him in bluejeans and work shirt and shield-size belt buckle and a well-aged, handsomely crushed white cowboy hat: Reagan's eyes crinkle at the far horizon. The photo watched from the wall as President Reagan pumped iron.

George W. Bush put himself in the Reagan mold. Barack Obama's victory represented, among other things, a repudiation of the Frontier style of Bush and Dick Cheney, in favor of an agenda arising from the Ellis Island point of view, with its emphasis on collective social interests, such as health care and the environment. A civic paradigm seemed to have shifted, and a generational paradigm as well.

And yet the future (Obama's hopeful young constituency) found itself boomeranged back to the Great Depression. The simultaneous arrival of Obama and bad financial times elicited perhaps too many articles about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Implicitly, George W. Bush and the Frontier way of doing things seem as discredited today as Herbert Hoover seemed in 1933.


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