The great western artist Charlie Russell – that’s him in a tent with a paint brush – never, as far as I know, contemplated a political life. Considering that he spent many early years as a cowboy in the tough country of central Montana, he would have been a shoo-in. Russell, a great artist, was by all accounts also a great story teller and he could ride a horse. Russell was a legit cowboy. That might just have been good enough to win high public office.
Russell is remembered today for his iconic paintings of cowboys, Native Americans and, perhaps his masterpiece, Lewis and Clark meeting the Flatheads at Ross’s Hole. The huge painting – 25 by 12 feet – hangs in the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Go see it if you get close.
But back to cowboys and politics. Amid all the position papers, TV commercials and editorial endorsements, a political race always comes down to two people and a choice. That choice can be influenced by a lot of factors. Who do you most agree with? Do you desire to punish someone for something and, as a result, “vote the SOB’s out?” Maybe you make your election choice, as I think many do, on the basis of who seems the most likable, the most easy to identify with.
Running for public office is not an IQ test. The smartest guy seldom wins. Think President Bill Bradley. And, while experience counts, maybe it counts less this year than it has before. Running for public office often comes down to defining your brand. Who is this person? Do I trust him or her? Are they authentic? Can they ride a horse, like say, Charlie Russell?
Speaking of that, the cowboy factor has become a factor in the Idaho gubernatorial campaign. As the Associated Press’s John Miller reported recently, incumbent Butch Otter (a team roper) and challenger Keith Allred (a successful cutting horse competitor) seem at times to be contending for the Cowboy-in-Chief label.
Call me crazy, but the Miller story provides about as much nuance and insight into the two competitors as we’ve seen so far from the reporting of this race that has been dominated by taxes and education spending. Otter favors Stetson, Allred is a Resistol man.
As Miller notes in his story, by the way it was picked up far and wide from the L.A. Times to Salon, the cowboy thing has often worked in western politics. Montana’s Brian Schweitzer did commercials on horse back and often wears a bolo tie when he’s not wearing a plaid shirt. New Mexico’s Bill Richardson fancies cowboy duds. No wingtips for former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who is working on a comeback. Kitzhaber is a jeans and boots kinda guy.
“They have castrated thousands of calves,” Miller wrote of the Idaho contenders. “They spend free time riding the range on horseback or hunting with shotguns slung over their shoulders. Cowboy hats, oversized belt buckles and scuffed-up boots are standard attire.”
As Steve Crump pointed out in a Times-News editorial, the cowboy thing is harder for a Democrat to pull of. After all, the ultimate cowboy politician was the Great Communicator, a Republican.
“Like Ronald Reagan, Allred gets it about cowboys. Reagan would never have tried to brand a calf, but he always looked like the Marlboro man whenever he mounted his Arabian gelding El Alamein. And the president forever wore his Stetson askew, tilted to the left, like Alan Ladd in Shane.”
The normally reliable Crump – a good student of Idaho history – did get one thing wrong in his editorial last Sunday. After analyzing the cowboy cred of the two political cow punchers running for governor, he brought another guy who sits a horse pretty well into the analysis, former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.
“Hell’s bells,” Crump wrote with regard to the Otter-Allred race, “nothing like this dust-up has happened in Idaho since a mule owned by then-Lt. Gov. Otter kicked then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, on a camping trip.”
First, that wasn’t a camping trip. Real Idahoans don’t call an elk hunt a camping trip and that mule that did the kicking in Andrus’s elk camp wasn’t owned by Butch, but by Cecil. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Dan Qualye: I knew Ruthie the mule. Ruthie was, well sort of, a friend of mine and Butch Otter didn’t own Ruthie.
I note this both for the historical record and in order that I can posit what I consider the real test of political viability in Idaho.
Which of the two cowboy candidates actually did what real Idahoans do in the fall – head for the hills, set up the elk camp and hunt the mighty Wapati? I am awaiting an answer on that.
Both these guys – Otter and Allred – look good in a hat on a horse, but can they make camp coffee? Now, there’s a question for their next debate. Charlie Russell shoulda run for something. You gotta know that guy knew his way around an elk camp.