How Barack Obama killed John Wayne
The reason that President Barack Obama won reelection, as most everyone knows by now, is that older white males, on whom the Republican Party has long relied, are declining in numbers, while women and minority voters, key components of Obama’s base, are increasing. In the electoral post-mortems, Obama’s victory has been considered a kind of valedictory to white male supremacy. But his win did something else: Obama killed John Wayne on Nov. 6 — with the complicity of roughly 61 million Americans.
Now, Wayne has been dead for more than 30 years, of course. And Obama didn’t even slay his heroic image. Americans still like brawny brawlers, and apply what I call “The Hollywood Test” in electing their presidential protagonist-in-chief, opting for the nominee who is most like a movie hero. What Obama and his supporters slew, however, was the value system Wayne personified – a whole way of thinking about America. It’s unlikely to resurface any time soon.
From the time he reached stardom in the 1940s, Wayne was not just a movie star, though he was one of the biggest. Nor was he just an icon, though he was one of the most compelling — a whole generation of men imitated his bearish growl and lumbering walk. More important, Wayne presented values that many now associate with America itself.
As Garry Wills, who wrote an appreciative book about Wayne, put it, “The way to be an American was to be Wayne.” Rather than Wayne being stamped in the country’s image, the country — at least white America — seemed stamped in his.
Wayne’s on-screen persona was both impregnable and intractable. He stood like a force of nature. Nothing fazed him. He relied on brute strength to win the day, so he never dickered or soothed or capitulated. He didn’t believe much in community either, and in what may be his most famous film, John Ford’s “The Searchers,” in which he devotes years to tracking down a niece who has been kidnapped by the Indians, he is unapologetically racist.
In fact, in most of his pictures, he doesn’t even believe in family. One is hard put to think of a movie where Wayne is married or a father. Wayne stands alone and self-contained, a man against the world.
It is an inspiring image – the man who needs no one. It has fired the imaginations not only of countless male movie fans but of countless politicians, especially on the right. Richard M. Nixon once said that Wayne’s “Chisum” was a model for law and order.
Wayne, who was himself conservative, may have been as responsible for modern conservatism as Barry M. Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan — who often imitated him. So when the GOP summoned
Clint Eastwood to introduce Mitt Romney at the convention, they were no doubt hoping to tap into the Wayne reservoir – to summon the manly values for which he stood and to which not just the Republican base but Americans everywhere subscribed.
It failed miserably. Not only because Eastwood seemed less the lone gunman come to rescue America than a bit loony, but also because Eastwood and Wayne, though often lumped together, don’t represent the same things.
Eastwood’s persona is an outlaw, a gunfighter-for-hire, a renegade. He reviles society and its institutions and exists completely outside them. His ethos is basically the nihilistic Tea Party ethos with, albeit, a dose of introspection and even occasional rue.
Eastwood’s snarling persona will no doubt survive in pockets of right wing-nuttery and extreme libertarianism, but it was never enough to build a party on, much less a nation. We don’t think of this as Clint Eastwood country, the way we thought of it as John Wayne country.
That’s because Wayne was different. He often played a sheriff or a soldier – people who served the common good without joining in the common good. They didn’t join because his heroes thought salvation was the gift of supermen like him. Wayne’s America looked back to the 19th century frontier values. It was anti-urban, anti-intellectual, self-sufficient, highly individualistic and, perhaps above all, masculine.
“The sonuvabitch looked like a man,” Wills quotes director Raoul Walsh as saying of Wayne. And Wills goes on to say, “When he was called the American, it was a statement of what his fans wanted America to be.”
And for many years, America was. It was the example of his macho bluster, wrote critic Eric Bentley, that got the country into Vietnam, and his fierce individualism slowed the march toward civil rights. Wayne was all the things conservative white America believed in as it resisted the pull of modernity. He was the man blocking the pass.
But when Obama won reelection, with the ascendancy of women and minorities, he struck a blow not only against the dominance of white voters but against the dominance of Wayne’s white male values. Obama’s America reads like the obverse of Wayne’s: urban and suburban, educated, communal, compassionate and every bit as feminine as it is masculine.
It embraces not the values of 19th century America but the values of many of the ethnic groups who supported Obama — especially what the polls reveal is their commitment to the larger community. It disdains the kind of swagger that Wayne embodied.
Wayne’s America was hard and unyielding. This emerging America is softer and more sensitive. As opposed to a solitary hero, it embraces the idea of collective heroism.
So something happened on Nov. 6 besides a presidential victory. If America is a movie — which in many ways it is — we changed the marquee. This new feature isn’t an old-fashioned Western. It is a new-fashioned Eastern-Midwestern-Far Western.
And there isn’t much of a role for John Wayne in this movie.
PHOTO: Actor Clint Eastwood addresses an empty chair and questions it as if it is President Obama, as he endorses nominee Mitt Romney during Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
TOP PHOTO: John Wayne in “El Dorado” REUTERS/Courtesy Paramount Pictures
MIDDLE PHOTO: Clint Eastwood in “For a Few Dollars More” REUTERS/MGM Home Entertainment