Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” (and the masterful 1989 television adaptation of that novel) is perhaps one of the best Wild West stories ever published. The story follows the journey of various men and women on a cattle drive from deep-south Texas to Montana.
If ever there were a brilliant parable for our time, Lonesome Dove is it. In addition to being a real heartbreaker, it is also a story that fully embraces the notion that the “law of unintended consequences” will inevitably strike if given half a chance.
The line quoted above is illustrative. One of the story’s key characters, Jake Spoon, hooks up with some really bad men - men who commit cold-blooded murder because they don’t like farmers (“sodbusters”). Men who are not content with just stealing horses - they must also shoot and kill the cowboys herding the horses.
Eventually, the story’s two central characters (Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call) catch up with Jake Spoon and the really bad men with whom Jake “was just tryin’ to get through the territory without gettin’ scalped.”
By this time, Woodrow and Gus had already found and buried the many victims murdered by these really bad men, so they pretty quickly resolve that hanging them is the only appropriate response …
… Which they thereupon do from a nearby tree, but not before poor ol’ Jake Spoon utters the pathetic assertion quoted above in a pitiful effort to excuse his inexcusable behavior.
… To which Gus states, in what has to be one of the finest (if understated) lines from modern fiction: “You know how it works, Jake. You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw. I’m sorry you crossed the line.”
This scene captures the essence of a quandary many Republicans find themselves in these days, and that’s this: They never saw the line and they obviously don’t glean that they’ve crossed it.
Like Jake Spoon, they may profess to having meant no harm - but despite those denials, they are nonetheless complicit in doing great harm.
The irony, of course, is that the harm they have done is upon that very thing which they so piously profess to love so dearly – which is to say, America and its ethical – some might even say moral – bearings. This harm is most glaring when evaluated against the usual mindsets most Americans – including most Republicans – used to take for granted. Things like telling the truth and condemning liars. Things like respecting the rule of law and playing by the rules. Things like showing respect for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, primary language, ancestry, religion, status or birthplace. Things like standing up to a bully when he cruelly mocks disabled people or disrespects Gold Star families or disparages a former POW or belittles the commander of the operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Things like coming to the assistance of fellow Americans in their hour of greatest need, even if they live on an island and speak Spanish as their first language. Things like keeping families together as they seek asylum at our southern border - even if they are from another country and speak Spanish as their first language. Things like denouncing a president who embraces the term “nationalist” and likens white supremacists to peaceful protestors (“Very fine people on both sides.”) These things are neither liberal nor conservative values – they are (or should be) American values. But something has gone terribly wrong in recent years. Somewhere along the line, some people – and yes, it’s predominantly Republicans – have decided to turn a blind eye to what their leaders are willing to do in pursuit of raw, unmitigated power. Jake Spoon crossed the line, but Jake Spoon had a gun to his head. The same cannot be said of today’s craven, even amoral, Republican leadership and the frenzied, spun-up, always-angry Republican base. Both groups are wholly complicit in generating the considerable harm that’s being done to our country by Donald Trump. Despite, one presumes, having been taught the difference between right and wrong, they have shown an appalling enthusiasm for excusing hypocritical, unethical, indeed immoral behaviors by a president who desires nothing so much as absolute power. Just when, one wonders, will those Republicans realize they’ve crossed the line?
“I never seen no line, Gus. I was just tryin’ to get through the territory without gettin’ scalped. That’s all. I never meant no harm.”
– Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
Cindy Offutt is a member of Boerne Area Democrats.