Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Opening of "The American Cowboy" Exhibit at the Library of Congress

March 24, 1983

Thank you very much. We have just had a tour of the exhibit, and as we went along I kept looking and looking for something from "Cattle Queen of Montana." [Laughter] I wasn't the cattle queen—Barbara Stanwyck was. [Laughter] And I did one called "Cowboy." [Laughter]

Dr. Boorstin and distinguished guests, it's a pleasure to help open this American Cowboy Exhibit at the Library of Congress. This may mark the beginning of a new era in Washington—some sorely needed horse sense has finally come to Capitol Hill. [Laughter] I could carry on from there, but I won't. [Laughter]

Some of you may be aware of my fondness for Western art. And in the last couple of years, we've tried to bring its influence to the White House—a natural home for a very American expression. Like that art, this exhibit can remind those of us who work or visit here what America is all about. If we understand this part of our history and our continuing fascination with it, we will better understand how our people see themselves and the hopes they have for America.

Another President from the West, Dwight Eisenhower of Abilene, Kansas, once said, "Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America." Well, I think America's heart is on display here. This exhibit explores both the reality and the myth of the American West. And both are important. Here are more than the bits and pieces of a rough and gritty life, but the tangible remnants of a national legend.

Among the horsehair lassoes and Remington sculptures and Gene Autry songs is a part of our national identity. Tails of Wild West men and women from Kit Carson to Wild Bill Hickok to Calamity Jane to Annie Oakley are woven into the dreams of our youths and the standards we aim to live by in our adult lives. Ideals of courageous and self-reliant heroes, both men and women, are the stuff of Western lore.

It all comes back as you browse through this exhibit. The difference between right and wrong seems as clear as the white hats that the cowboys in Hollywood pictures always wore so you'd know right from the beginning who was the good guy. Integrity, morality, and democratic values are the resounding themes.

Life wasn't that simple then, and it certainly isn't today. But in the words of a noted historian, "Americans, in making their Western myths, were not put off by discrepancies with reality. Americans believed about the West not so much what was true, but what they thought ought to be true." He went on, "Lacking the common heritage that bound other nations together, they were forced to look elsewhere for the basis of their national existence. And they found it in the West."

While this exhibit is here, I hope all of Washington takes time to get to know the American cowboy again. And as the exhibit travels from city to modern city, I hope it reinforces the glue of a very good society, born and bred in the wide open spaces.

And again, for all who had anything to do with this, I thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at approximately 8 p.m. to invited guests at the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress. Prior to his remarks, the President toured the exhibit with Mrs. Reagan, Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, and Harry J. Gray, chairman of United Technologies Corp., which donated funds for the exhibit.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Opening of "The American Cowboy" Exhibit at the Library of Congress Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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