Originally published at Huffington Post, Feb. 9, 2009
For over a century now, in the coupling of show biz with politics, the American imagination has been fixed on the macho image of our Chief of State as Chief Cowboy.
Even before he was President, Teddy Roosevelt in 1883 played cowboy at his ranch in South Dakota because William B. Cody had already made cowboying look heroic in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” Roosevelt’s morphing the United States Cavalry into a gang of Rough Riders up San Juan Hill was as natural as Wild West Shows morphing into the Hollywood Western in 1903.
Certainly not all of our presidents have donned a cowboy costume with ease. The biggest mismatch was New Englander Calvin Coolidge, who abandoned his electric exercise-horse in the White House gym to wear a Tom Mix hat and oversize carnival chaps studded with his nickname “Cal” while touring the Black Hills.
The most poignant mismatch was John F. Kennedy, when he was given a cowboy hat by the Chamber of Commerce in Fort Worth on the morning of November 22, 1963. Since Kennedy famously did not wear a hat, he refused to model this one but promised the group that if they’d visit the White House the following Monday, he’d wear it then.
More recently, two of our presidents eagerly embraced cowboy costume and politics for the purpose of war, one in Vietnam, the other in Iraq. Neither Lyndon B. Johnson nor George W. Bush, however, despite their chosen panoply of Texas ranches and Texas twangs were convincing cowboys. Johnson lacked the confidence, Bush the credibility.
Fittingly, our most persuasive Cowboy in Chief was the actor Ronald Reagan, who as a performer knew the value of understatement in wearing a theatrical cliché. Fittingly, in real life he avoided both war and an assassin’s bullet.
The Inauguration of our new Chief this January has miraculously, it would seem, inaugurated a shift in movie genre. Instead of watching a loner whacking brush at the Crawford Corral, most of the nation watched endless reruns of a couple in black and white dancing. Slow dancing. “Old-style,” as President Obama said. In their formal wear, Barack and Michelle looked “like a wedding couple,” as many said.
They looked like Fred and Ginger, who first sang “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off” in Swing Time in 1936 to lighten our hearts in the middle of the first Great Depression. Maybe the true reason movie musicals took off in the Depression was not that they provided escapist fantasy but rather something real — an assertion of values based on neither power nor money but on the hope of togetherness, two by two.
Musicals depended on a romance between men and women, not just the buddyhood of guys with guns. Musicals were by definition inclusive of the very things Westerns typically excluded — gender other than male, race other than white, a community larger than a man and his horse. By definition it took two to tango or to tap dance. Mickey Rooney had Judy Garland, Shirley Temple had Bill Bojangles Robinson, Busby Berkeley made his entire chorus the star of Forty-Second Street.
Maybe the hard power of Westerns is being shoved off screen by the soft power of Musicals. Maybe song and dance are as basic to the American spirit as guns and shootouts. The 1942 musical Orchestra Wives suggested in its title and the extraordinary dancing of the Nicholas Brothers that we’re all in it together. The hit song of that movie, written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, was “At Last.”