Exhibit Explores Cowboy-President Connection

A new exhibit at California's Autry National Center explores how Americans link their commanders in chief to the cowboys of the Wild West. Exhibit curator Byron Price talks with Linda Wertheimer about unlikely links between satirist Will Rogers and Franklin Roosevelt, and Jimmy Carter and the movie Midnight Cowboy.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Counting approximately from Teddy Roosevelt right to the present day, Americans have liked to link their presidents with the West, with Westerns, with big cowboy hats. It's a kind of merger of two myths, the leader of the Western world and the Wild West. And presidents have encouraged it. Think Lyndon Johnson with his LBJ ranch in Texas and his specially-designed downtown cowboy hat. Think Ronald Reagan, a star of Western movies who could actually ride horses.

The connection between cowboys and presidents is being explored by an exhibit with that name at the Museum of the American West. Byron Price is the head curator of "Cowboys and Presidents" at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. One of the great movie cowboys, Gene Autry, founded the museum. Mr. Price is also the director of the University of Oklahoma's Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West, and he joins us from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Mr. Price, thanks for being with us.

Mr. BYRON PRICE (Head Curator, "Cowboys and Presidents" Exhibition, Autry National Center): Glad to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: What is it, do you think, about America's politics that cries out for a cowboy identity for our presidents?

Mr. PRICE: I think cowboys represent masculinity, bravery, courageousness, selflessness, rugged individualism. And it's those characteristics, I think, that draw people to the cowboy ideal, the cowboy image. Its appeal is especially strong during periods of national crisis and trauma, whether it'd be war or depression, because cowboys appeal to strength, stability and core values.

WERTHEIMER: Your exhibit includes audio of John Barletta, who is a retired Secret Service officer, talking about Ronald Reagan. He said that Reagan wasn't a cowboy, but he had cowboy ethics. What does that mean?

Mr. PRICE: It means that he was true to his word, would make deals on handshakes, and believe that he would follow through.

WERTHEIMER: Our present president, George W. Bush, has obviously aspired to Ronald Reagan's cowboy ethics. But he's also been criticized as reckless. In fact, the term "cowboy culture at the White House" came up in the campaign from Democrats who were describing something that, you know, is not exactly myth making.

Mr. PRICE: Well, one has to remember that from World War II on virtually every American president has been criticized, particularly in the foreign media, as being cowboys: reckless, dangerous, juvenile. And so it was not simply Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush that had these qualities. This is one of the things that promoted the exhibition, the fact that you could look back in history and see trends from Theodore Roosevelt on this dichotomy of good and bad.

WERTHEIMER: Will Rogers, who was himself a cowboy - I mean, is that fair to say?

Mr. PRICE: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: He loved to poke fun at wannabe cowboy presidents.

Mr. PRICE: Will poked fun at all pretension. He was always loved. And the presidents that he made fun of still had him to the White House. He was quite the supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and indeed was a surrogate cowboy for the Roosevelt administration.

WERTHEIMER: What did that involve?

Mr. PRICE: It involved speaking well of FDR while wearing your cowboy outfit in his daily column and his radio broadcast. He was extremely influential.

WERTHEIMER: What about some of the 20th century's other presidents? What about Richard Nixon?

Mr. PRICE: One of my favorite stories about Nixon has to do with flying with Leonid Brezhnev across the country to California for a summit meeting. And as they came over the Grand Canyon, he motioned to Brezhnev that they were passing the Grand Canyon. And Brezhnev said, oh, I know. I've seen this in Western movies that Stalin used to show. Without skipping a beat, they both rose from their seats and enacted a mock gunfight. We don't know who won.

(Soundbite of laughing)

WERTHEIMER: Now, presidents are not the only ones, of course, in the White House who succumb to cowboy fever. How are you finding voters responding to this tip of the old cowboy hat to presidents? Were you thinking, OK, if Hillary Clinton wins, this isn't going to work? If Barack Obama wins, I have seen pictures of him in a cowboy hat.

Mr. PRICE: Both Barack Obama in a cowboy hat, John McCain in a cowboy hat. We looked high and low for a photograph of Hillary Clinton in her Goldwater Girl costume of 1964...

WERTHEIMER: Right. I remember that.

Mr. PRICE: Which was Western in orientation. And we were not able to find one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Byron Price is one of the curators of "Cowboys and Presidents" on exhibit at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. The exhibit continues there through September 7 and then goes to Austin, Texas. Mr. Price, thanks very much.

Mr. PRICE: Glad to be with you, Linda.

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