Walking Tall

by Andrew Santella
GQ, July 2002

At the heart of the purely American appeal of the cowboy boot is this fact: You can walk around in a pair that cost four figures and is made of purple-dyed kangaroo leather, and features floral patters in contrasting stitching, and yet still think of yourself as a real ass-kicking man’s man.

They make you stand tall, they make you strut, and they cry out for attention. No wonder cowboy boots seem to be the footwear of choice for the world’s most powerful men. When George W. Bush visited Mexico last year, he wore cowboy boots to his meeting with Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox. So did Fox. Not long ago, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian went shopping for a pair of his own. If you run a country, cowboy boots are apparently a must-have.

American presidents have long loved cowboy boots. Carter wore them, Johnson wore them, Reagan wore them, Clinton wore them. It makes sense. Cowboy boots may be the perfect politicians’ footwear, originating as they do in corrals and cattle pens, where the bullshit is often even deeper than it is in the halls of Congress. 

But until recently, you didn’t see a lot world leaders wearing cowboy boots with suits, and you certainly didn’t see a lot of world leaders getting together to admire each other’s boots. The Bush-Fox meeting might well have ushered in a new paradigm in political fashion, a kind of New Boot Order. At first glance, a world run by men in cowboy boots might not seem like a great idea. But then again we’ve had a half-century or so of a world run by men in tasseled loafers, and that hasn’t worked out all so well, either. For his part, Bush has made his preference for cowboy boots known from his very first moments in office. For inauguration night partying, Bush paired black tie with black eel-skin boots, embossed with a blue presidential seal over the shin. His fellow Texans in Congress, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, also favor cowboy boots and belong to something called the Congressional Boot Caucus.

All of these men wear custom-made boots produced by a Houston bootmaker named Rocky Carroll. In fact, Carroll has made boots for the last six presidents, including 56 pairs for the current president’s father. Bill Clinton apparently wins the prize for largest recent presidential foot, registering a size 13. 

Of course, these custom boots go way beyond the caramel-brown numbers we wore back in high school. Custom boots tend to be made of exotic leathers like lizard or kangaroo and can easily cost several thousand dollars per pair. Carroll once made a diamond-studded pair for Elizabeth Taylor that ran $40,000.

Cowboy boot aficionados will tell you that the most beautiful boots qualify as folk art. There may be no finer example than the pair made for Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 by Texas bootmakers Zeferino and Eli Rios. Now in the collection of the National Archives, the boots feature images of the U.S. Capitol, the Great Seal of the United States and Kansas sunflowers. That’s a lot of art to fit on one pair of boots. 

To make sure theirs does not become a dying art, some bootmakers will train or apprentice greenhorns who want to learn to make boots. Or wannabe bootmakers can enroll in the Shoe, Boot and Saddle Program at Oklahoma State University at Okmulgee, the only such degree program in the country. It appears to be a promising career path, because any day now Bootmaster General figures to become a Cabinet position. []