The news that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will not contest the next election and has decided to ride that lonesome trail into the sunset of lobbying and consulting naturally reminded me of the great man's finest hour - his stirring defense of the federally subsidized cowboy poetry program. Here's what I had to say about it in my column of more or less exactly four years ago - March 2011 - oh, and do stay tuned for my own non-federally subsidized efforts at cowboy poetry right at the end:
How mean-spirited are House Republicans? So mean-spirited that they would end federally funded cowboy poetry! On Tuesday, Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, took to the Senate floor to thunder that this town ain't big enough for both him and the Mean-Spirited Kid (John Boehner).
"The mean-spirited bill, HR 1 ... eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts," said Senator Reid. "These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist."
"Tens of thousands" would "not exist"? There can't be that many cowboy poets, can there? Oh, c'mon, don't be naïve. Where there are taxpayer-funded cowboy poets, there must surely be cowboy poetry festival administrators, and a Bureau of Cowboy Poetry Festival Licensing, and cowboy poetry festival administration grant-writers, and a Department of Cowboy Poetry Festival Administration Grant Application Processing, and Professors of Cowboy Poetry Festival Educational Workshop Management at dozens of American colleges credentialing thousands of cowboy poetry festival workshop co-coordinating majors every year. It all adds up. In Western railroad halts where the Last Chance Saloon shuttered in 1893, dusty one-horse towns are now glittering one-grant towns, where elderly hoochie-koochie dancers are being retrained to lead rewarding lives as inspectors from the Agency of Cowboy-Poetry Festival Handicapped-Access Compliance. Used to be a man could ride the range for days on end under lonesome skies with nuthin' on the horizon 'cept a withered mesquite and a clump of sagebrush, but now all you see are clouds of dust and all you hear's the mighty roar of thundering hooves as every gnarled ol' wrangler in the territory races for the last hitching post outside creative-writing class.
Well, it's easy to mock, and in the hours after Senator Reid's effusions many of us on the Internet did. I liked Mary Katherine Ham's channeling of Ted Kennedy:
John Boehner's America is a land in which cowboys would be forced into back-alley poetry recitations.
Funny – although, being an example of private-sector non-government-funded wordsmithing, it obviously doesn't "create jobs."
But what's more difficult to figure out is why everyone doesn't mock – and why Senator Reid (and presumably senior flunkies in the bloated emir-sized retinues that now attend our "citizen-legislators") thought this would be a persuasive line of argument. This year, the NEA will be giving $50,000 toward the exhibition "Ranchlines: Verses And Visions Of The Rural West" in Elko.
What's the big deal? It's 50 grand, a couple of saddlebags in small bills. Not a large sum. But then when you're Harry Reid staggering around in your trillion-gallon hat, it's all small potatoes, isn't it? He and too many other Americans seem to be living their version of the old line: If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem; if you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem. America owes the world $14 trillion, so the world has a problem.
And, if it's the world's problem, why bother our pretty little heads about it? I'm struck by the number of times I've been blithely assured by insiders in D.C. and elsewhere that "it's not in China's interest" to yank the rug out from under America: We don't need to do anything drastic, because they won't do anything drastic. I'm not so sure I could claim with any degree of confidence to know what China considered to be in its interest. But we have the planet's most lavishly funded intelligence agency, so they're bound to be on top of it, aren't they?
In the new budget, there's a request from the CIA for an emergency appropriation of $513.7 million. Great! A mere half-billion. That's enough for 10,000 cowboy poetry festivals. So what's it for? Toppling Kim Jong-Il? Taking out the Iranian nuclear program?
Er, no. It's an emergency payment to stop the CIA pension fund from going bankrupt next year with unfunded liabilities of $6.4 billion. The CIA failed to foresee the collapse of the Iron Curtain until it happened. It failed to spot that Pakistan was going nuclear until it happened. But, when the world's most bounteously endowed intelligence agency fails to spot that its own pension fund is going bankrupt until it happens, I wouldn't bet the future on anyone in the United States government having much of a clue about what is or isn't "in China's interest."
That leaves America to calculate what's in America's interest. And Harry Reid seems to have figured that it's in America's interest (or, at any rate, his) to spend like there's no tomorrow even as the clock chimes quarter-to-midnight. And, when the Complacent Caballero tells you that we cannot contemplate doing anything as "mean-spirited" as a $50,000 cut in a poetry festival, he's telling you it's over. What else do we fund apart from cowboy poetry? Well, American taxpayers fund the vast bulk of the rapidly expanding Chinese military merely through interest payments on the debt. This is the point in the cowboy movie when the guy squints through the window of the shack and says, "It's quiet out there. Too quiet."
What do you need to write cowboy poetry? Words like "tumbleweed" and "chaps." Also, trochees, spondees and dactyls. Pencil and paper. Total cost: 79 cents. Maybe you and a half-dozen other cowboy poets like to book the back room at the local bar once a month for an evening of cowboy poetry and a few beers. Total cost: couple hundred bucks. Maybe folks get word, and you figure you should get a bigger room and invite the public and charge a three-dollar admission.
Why does any of this require national subsidies managed by a distant bureaucracy thousands of miles away?
Well, because these days, what doesn't? Once upon a time, the cowboy embodied the rugged individualism of the frontier. In Harry Reid's world, he embodies dependency without end. To "preserve" the "tradition," it is necessary to invert everything the tradition represents: From true grit to federally funded grit. Thus America, bouncing along in the Dead Wood Stage of history:
Whipcrack-away, whipcrack-away, whipcrack-away!
That's what I had to say four years ago, but, as ol' Harry rides off, let's have one more chorus of my own contribution to the cowboy-poetry genre. I'm still waiting for the grant check:
An ol' cowpoke went ridin' out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once he spied a posse from the GOP
A-hangin' from that ol' mesquite his fed'ral subsidy
His pen was still a-fire and he knew how to spell "git"
But an ol' paint can't outride a trillion-dollar deficit
If only Harry Reid can head 'em off at that there pass
'Cuz he hasn't finished paying off creative-writing class
Cow Poets On The Dole
Cow Poets On The Dole…
With apologies to one of my very favorite Songs of the Week.