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McCain’s Cowboy Persona « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/mccain-cowboy-hat.jpgSen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (twinkletoez, flickr)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.–For months, the media has been reporting that Sen. John McCain spends weekends at his “Arizona ranch,” where he can be with his family, visit with close friends or occasionally entertain possible vice presidential contenders.

The steady reference to the presumptive GOP presidential nominee’s “Arizona ranch” projects a powerful image of the American cowboy that has long played an important role in presidential politics. The description of McCain’s sliver of Arizona’s outback as a “ranch,” however, is misleading at best. And, perhaps inadvertently, it allows McCain to obscure his carpetbagger role in Arizona politics with a veneer of American mythology.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The United States America has had four presidents in the last 107 years who relied on the persona of the rancher to one degree or another.

Ronald Reagan, who understood a thing or two about projecting images, was frequently photographed riding horses or cutting brush on his beloved 688-acre Rancho del Ceilo, projecting an aura of youthful vigor. Lyndon B. Johnson was a hands-on rancher who turned a dilapidated 250-acre holding into a magnificent 2,700-acre ranch, where he hosted world leaders while keeping close tabs on the condition of his cattle and range land throughout his political career.

George W. Bush traded Reagan’s ax for a chain saw, but clearly enjoys clearing brush on his 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, Tex., where cattle graze alongside deer. And, of course, there is the grandest cowboy of them all, McCain’s hero, Theodore Roosevelt — a New York Knickerbocker who made a living from atop his horse, herding cattle on two South Dakota ranches long before setting up shop in the White House.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/reagan_horse-235x300.jpgReagan Library Photo

But in McCain’s case, his Yavapai County hideout wouldn’t even qualify as a ranchette — a term sometimes used derisively in the West to describe 40-acre parcels carved out of what were once-sprawling working cattle ranches. McCain’s acreage is barely half that, coming in at a cozy 20.8 acres.

McCain, in fact, doesn’t own his little slice of mesquite-studded high-desert, on the banks of Oak Creek, a lovely stream that meanders into the Verde River, one of the state’s rivers most endangered by development. McCain’s “ranch” is part of a trust and a limited partnership controlled by his wife — the Cindy McCain Hensley Family Trust and the Sedona Hidden Valley Limited Partnership. The property includes a couple of houses and outbuildings with an assessed value of $1.7 million, according to the Yavapai County Assessor’s Office.

The property is located in a “subdivision” where there is no cattle roping, branding or herding of heifers. Far from a ranch, McCain’s getaway is really nothing more than a retreat. But the retired Navy captain and surge advocate certainly doesn’t want the media stating that McCain went to his “Arizona retreat” for the weekend, lest that conjure up images of French cowardice.

Roosevelt, Johnson, Reagan and Bush have all worn the cowboy hat and benefited from the image of working a Western ranch. McCain, to his credit, doesn’t pose in cowboy garb, preferring a baseball cap with a Navy logo instead. Yet the continual mention of his “Arizona ranch” portrays a powerful image of the rugged individualism at the core of the ethos of the American cowboy.

“The American Cowboy resonates positively among Americans as one of our most enduring cultural symbols,” writes Ray White, author of “King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West: Roy Rogers & Dale Evans.” “In view of that reality, it is natural that politicians and their promoters use the image to market themselves for public office, particularly if the politician has a connection with the West and is running for president of the United States.”

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/bush-clearing-brush.jpgWhite House Photo

The media is giving McCain a pass into this iconic status by labeling his vacation home as a ranch. Arizona is home to the largest ranches in the West, with some spreading out hundreds of thousands of acres, combining private holdings and leases on state and federal land. Twenty-point-eight acres just doesn’t qualify. The other presidents who have had Western White Houses at their various ranches at least had a good-sized piece of property and some cattle to point to.

Bush, a self-described “windshield rancher,” purchased the Crawford Ranch, 18 miles southwest of Waco, Tex., for $1.3 million in 1999. It includes three miles of frontage on Rainey Creek and the Middle Bosque River, seven canyons, a waterfall and meadows where cattle and wildlife graze. Bush built a home and has entertained world leaders at the ranch, while improving its grassland ecology.

Johnson’s LBJ Ranch helped promote his image as a horse-trading Texan with the astute understanding of Washington politics. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Johnson and his vice president, Humbert Humphrey, were photographed riding horses across the range — in their business suits. But the LBJ Ranch was far from a dude ranch — it had 400 head of registered Hereford cattle. Johnson was actively involved in ranching decisions throughout his life in Washington — and as president he signed into law nearly 300 bills dealing with environmental protection and other resource conservation issues.

Reagan purchased the Rancho del Ceilo, northwest of Santa Barbara, in 1974 for $527,000, just as he ended his second term as California governor. The ranch had four horses and 50 head of cattle, and President Reagan usually spent about 50 days a year at his version of the Western White House. Reagan built much of the ranch himself. The Washington Post called it the “place to see the hand of the man” and “a true national treasure.”

Of these presidential ranchers, Roosevelt was by far the most down-and-dirty. While Reagan and Bush enjoyed the ranching lifestyle, Roosevelt actually lived the harsh reality of cowboy life. He spent long hours in the saddle driving the herd, hunting for food and once tracked cattle rustlers in freezing temperatures. When Roosevelt became the nation’s youngest president, at age 42, following the assassination of William McKinley, Sen. Mark Hanna, McKinley’s political tactician, was said to have declared: “Now look! That damned cowboy is president of the United States.”

McCain’s no cowboy. And he’s not a rancher. In fact, he’s barely an Arizonan. He swept into the state in 1981, on the arm of his bride, Cindy Henley, a liquor distribution heiress. Within one year, he was a member of Congress, financing his 1982 campaign with hundreds of thousands of dollars in beer money. McCain’s spent most of the next 26 years in Washington, as his wife raised the children in Phoenix and other locales.

McCain does not own or spend time at anything remotely close to an “Arizona ranch.” Call it a vacation home, hideaway, getaway, compound or, perhaps, what it actually is — a retreat.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sen. John McCain owns 6.6 acres of land. He owns 20.8. We regret the error. *

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