Bronc bustin’ the Code of the West

Buffalo Bill circus poster, ca. 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C./Wikimedia Commons

By Bob Hicks

So it’s happened. Oregon’s House of Representatives has officially endorsed the Code of the West, a business opportunity ridin’ hard out of the hills of Texas into the hearts of legislators from Cheyenne to Salem. A trademarked moral compass, as it were, ready-made for tryin’ times. Keep ‘er simple. Keep ‘er pure. And please buy the book.

Before the Code becomes part of Oregon law, the state Senate must also consider the bill. Bet on its passing. In tough times, this is quick and easy symbolism, roughly on the order of naming an official state lizard or proclaiming State Barleycorn Growers Appreciation Day. And basically as harmless, although the Code has whomped up a bit of consternation among people who point out that the settler ethic didn’t work out so well for, say, the native Americans who were here before the place was called the West. Or the Chinese and Japanese settlers who made the mistake of thinking they were free to carve out lives of their own on the frontier. Or the black families legislated brusquely elsewhere by Oregon’s strict exclusion laws.

Still. That was then and this is now. The cowboy code, if historically imperfect and a tad romanticized (and isn’t all history imperfect and much of it romanticized?) is not a perversely unreasonable document. It appeals to the virtues of good old-fashioned common sense. It’s also considerably shorter, easier to understand, and vastly more entertaining than the Oregon State Building Code. By comparison, the Code of the West is downright literature.

Senate willing, the Code will become encoded because one legislator, Rep. Tim Freeman (R-Roseburg) really likes it and has pushed it hard. Most of his House bunkmates are going along because the effect is almost totally symbolic and, well, why fight it? Voting “yes” and gaining Freeman’s gratitude just might help in any potential horse-trading down the road. These days, that’s how the West is won. The thing is likely to be done and then forgotten. So before the Code rides off into the sunset of abandoned headlines, let’s take a look at what our leaders are symbolically committing us to. It’s a 10-point code, and contrary to rumor it was not handed down from the mountaintop on stone tablets to John Wayne by the Lord God Jehovah himself:

1. Live each day with courage.

Seems reasonable. If that lion can trek all the way to the Emerald City in search of it, it must be worth having. And livin’ in fear is a hurtin’ thing. Score one for the cowboys.

2. Take pride in your work.

Well, yes. Do it right. Way too much shoddiness out there. Cowboys, 2-zip.

3. Always finish what you start.

Got some problems with this one. As the prominent riverboat philosopher Kenny Rogers used to say, know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Being stubborn about finishing something you’ve started just because you’ve started it is how you get neck deep in the Big Muddy. Wouldn’t conceding that something you’ve begun was a mistake and would be better abandoned (insert name of war, bridge to nowhere, or dead-end blog post here) be living your day with courage? Reality gets on the scoreboard.

4. Do what has to be done.

Somebody’s gotta do it. The ones who actually do often don’t get the credit. But that’s not what’s it about, is it? Cowboys rule again.

5. Be tough, but fair.

Lord knows, life calls for a little toughness. Fair enough. But what about, “Be tough and fair and merciful”? Is mere toughness sufficient? Is it even, in all circumstances, right? Ever watched video of Bobby Knight being tough on his basketball players (or the referees)? Let’s call it even and split the point. Cowboys three and half, Reality one and a half.

6. When you make a promise, keep it.

Absolutely. Unless you made a mistake giving your promise in the first place, or the circumstances have changed to the point that you have no choice but to shift gears. And then you’ve got some serious explainin’ and apologizin’ to do. Still, the impulse is right. Give the cowboys full credit on this one.

7. Ride for the brand.

Ouch. What’s that mean? My employer right or wrong? My country right or wrong? Gotta disagree on this one. Under many circumstances, stoicism and swallowing your disagreements just don’t cut it. Dissent can be the highest form of loyalty, even if it’s read as betrayal. But ask yourself this: If “the brand” embarks on a foolish war or a series of greed-inspired reckless investments, who’s betraying whom? Cowboys four and a half, reality two and a half.

8. Talk less, say more.

Too much chatter, too little sense? Any cowboy who tunes out talk radio gets our vote. And that’s all we’re going to say on the subject.

9. Remember that some things are not for sale.

True. And some things shouldn’t be. The Code of the West, however, is. James P. Owen, the Texan who came up with the thing, seems to be making a nice little living from it. If you look at his Web site, you’ll find plenty of opportunity to buy his books, posters, DVDs and wallet cards (to be pulled out and consulted, we figure, when a ranch hand’s coming down with a nasty case of situational ethics). Not that there’s anything wrong with making a living. A fella’s entitled to an honest profit on his labors. But it’s also fair asking: should a fella’s profit-making venture be codified into state policy? What about the Declaration of Independence? Did Thomas Jefferson nail down the T-shirt marketing rights?

10. Know where to draw the line.

This being the West and all, it’s probably in the sand. Still, point taken. Sometimes enough is enough. Did the Oregon House notice Point 10 when it took time out from dithering over unemployment, environmental issues, tax codes, school crises, staggering budget shortfalls and other minor matters to officially endorse this exercise in symbolism? Doc Holliday, hell. What would Doc Mallarmé say?


So there you have it. An imperfect document, but suddenly, whether we want it or not, it’s ours. Listen up, Oregon. This is now, Senate willing, the official code we live by. So be it. We’re not suggesting that the Legislature spend another moment on the thing. But in case it does, it might want to consider a few amendments:

Defend and obey the rights of the Commons. We’re all in this together, so don’t get greedy.

Don’t make a mess in your own bunkhouse. It’s the only West we’ve got. Don’t trash the place.

Respect the other riders of the range. Animals. Fish. Plants. They live here, too. They got rights.

Help your cowpoke neighbor as yourself. Ain’t no such thing as a lone ranger. When someone needs it, lend a helping hand. Could be the other way around next time.

Holster that six-shooter. For god’s sake, can we please try to talk first and maybe not shoot at all?

Stop and smell the sagebrush. What’s the point of living here if you don’t pay attention to the beauty of it all?


ILLUSTRATION: Buffalo Bill circus poster, ca. 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C./Wikimedia Commons.