It was almost parody, the way he rolled in, Ryan Zinke's six-foot-four frame hunched in the bucket seat of a black SUV. The tires sent up dust as they stopped, and out stepped the secretary of the interior, his gold "MONTANA" belt buckle glinting in the sun. He palmed his cowboy hat onto his head slowly, deliberately, and beheld the horse before him. "Hello, Tonto," Zinke said, his voice as deep as you might expect from a former SEAL commander who fancies himself a kind of latter-day Teddy Roosevelt. Tonto blinked.
Though Zinke may have looked the part of the Western cowboy, he is in fact a big player in Donald Trump's Washington. That much was made clear last week when—despite the many chores that keep him busy at the Interior Department—Zinke decided he wanted a piece of the healthcare debate, too. He rang up Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, urging her to fall in line on the White House-backed effort to repeal Obamacare, and threatening to compromise energy projects important to her state if she didn't. The move no doubt endeared him to Trump, but it sparked the ire of House Democrats, who now want the incident investigated. ("The call was professional and the media stories are totally sensationalized," Zinke's spokeswoman tells me.)
Moments like these can make Trump’s D.C. feel like a stressful place—a hive of murky gamesmanship and scrambled moral calculating. And a horse can help soothe some of that. I found Zinke and his mount, that Saturday morning not long ago, near the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, where the U.S. Park Police houses its horses. As interior secretary, Zinke administers almost all of America's public lands, including Washington's various monuments and the National Mall, where he'd invited me to join him for a ride. (He's also the boss of the Park Police officers, which means that when he refuses to wear a helmet, they have no choice but to indulge him.) So we set off down the Mall, the secretary wearing a blue checked shirt and white-stitched cowboy boots, like a wannabe Wayne for our hero-less times.
The 55-year-old likes to ride here every few weeks, to "get out in the field, like a commander should," as he puts it. It's also a fine way for a politician like him to glad-hand with sightseers—though none has any idea who Ryan Zinke is.
"You must be here from Texas!" one man shouts to the secretary.
True, the lineage of interior secretaries isn't exactly the stuff of Schoolhouse Rock songs, and even among members of the cabinet, he's a relatively unfamous face: Zinke had only been in Congress for a couple of years when Trump plucked him out of seeming obscurity to run Interior. But if Zinke's track record is any indication, he has every intention of leveraging his new post on Team Trump into something much bigger. And while hitching one's political future to this particular administration could be seen as something of a risky move, Zinke's daring has often been rewarded.