M.W.M.SROMMEIMM.Wa.M . Rugged Individualism: An Eastern Texan Looks at a Western Easterner in the White House by Craig Edward Clifford Ronald Reagan chops wood, rides horses, and from time to time dons a white Stetson not to mention that he used to dress up in full cowboy regalia in front of Hollywood cameras. With the possible exception of the celluloid appearances, these are perfectly healthy things to do. In this particular case, however, we are not just dealing with healthy activities, but with symbols, and powerful ones at that. Ronald Reagan went galloping into the White House upon the symbols of a rugged, but benevolent individualism just as surely as Hollywood cowboys go riding off into the sunset on Old Paint. In order to figure out what all of this means which is the proper question to ask about symbols we’re going to haysto back off a step or two and ask what all of this rugged individualism is all about. If we want to know whether our president is a geniune rugged individualist of the West or to borrow Larry McMurtry’s name for Californians just another Western Easterner, then we need to know what a rugged individualist is As a Texan living about 40 miles from the nation’s capital I guess that makes me an Eastern Texan I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about these matters. The Lone Star State played no small part in the tradition which produced the symbol of the rugged individualist. In thinking in a serious way about the past, we are always looking at human possibilities, not just at a series of facts. Looking at what has been in the appropriate manner is the same thing as looking at what can be. This doesn’t mean that the past determines what will happen in the future, only that it determines what is and is not possible. As I see it, the rugged individualism of the West yields itself up to a spectrum of possibilities with two distinct poles. The question for Westerners and for Americans insofar as the spirit of the West is a vital part of the American spirit Craig Edward Clifford, a Houston native, is a free-lance writer living in Annapolis, Maryland. is not whether or not to be rugged individualists, but how to seize hold of the highest possibility, the best, which this tradition offers. In its rawest form, rugged individualism seems to have to do with the ability to survive on the frontier, the ability of the isolated settler to defend himself against the elements, the Indians, and, as time went on, the thieves and murderers who hovered around the edges of advancing civilization. It is this selfconfident, sometimes brash self-reliance which built the West, so the saying goes. And there is no doubt that it took strong, fearless men and women to settle the frontier -a drive through West Texas in July suggests that the fainthearted and well-mannered would not fare too well in those regions even today. But, as many a Hollywood movie was quick to point out Red River comes to mind here there was a thin line between selfreliance and the unrestrained exercise of power and greed. Thus we have the image of the overpowering individual who goes after anything and everything he can get his hands on, whether he deserves it or not, and marches roughshod over anything or anybody who gets in his way. The best account of this human possibility, by the way, occurred not in Hollywood film, not even in Walter Prescott Webb or J. Frank Dobie, nor even in Larry McMurtry, John Graves, or Larry King, but in Plato’s Gorgias. The tyrannical spirit has been around for a while. But there is another side to the coin, or at least there was once upon a time. If the West included cattle barons who overran their neighbors like Genghis Khan overran northern China, a few peculiar lawmen such as Roy Bean for whom the force of their own wills always took precedence over the rule of law, and enough mean-spirited gunslingers and ruffians to keep Hollywood going strong for several decades, it also included men and women who went west with a genuine sense of commmunity. A perusal of Webb’s account of the Texas Rangers, for example, reveals that most of the great Rangers of the last century were not gunslinging, whore-mongering, two-fisted swashbucklers, but responsible citizens making tremendous personal sacrifices in service of their state \(or for and say they made mistakes in judgment and that they were sometimes overzealous in their application of the law, but not that they were out to get what, they wanted no matter who or what got in the way. If we push rugged individualism towards the best it has to offer, we come up with the notion that each individual should be strong enough to care for himself as best as he can, strong enough to care for others when they need caring for, strong enough to contribute to the common good because he knows damn well that no individual can survive on his own but more importantly, if I understand High Noon correctly, strong enough to do what is right even if it involves personal sacrifice. Genuine individualism does not preclude the possibility of community; it is the basis of it. Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By offers a powerful portrayal of the two poles of rugged individualism, and of the transformation from responsible to ruthless individualism in this century. Homer Bannon is as individualistic, self-reliant, and anti-government as they come, and yet he knows that he has to cooperate with the government agents in doing away with his diseased cattle whereas Hud wants to sell the cattle before the final results of the test are in. Homer Bannon sacrifices everything because he knows it is the right thing to do. To be sure, given the circumstances which the men of the West faced, it is hard to imagine that the one kind of rugged individualism could have developed without the other. There is a good deal of Hud in Homer Bannon: the man who is strong enough to do what has to be done occasionally does what shouldn’t be done. But even if real people are never all that simple, it is worthwhile to distinguish between the two poles. Where does this leave Reagan? The problem with Reagan’s rugged individualism is that it collapses the image of THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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