How Barack Obama killed John Wayne

By Neal Gabler
November 14, 2012

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

38 comments

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How shortsighted. Reaching back to a figure in his hey day in the 1950′s to use as an analogy for today’s politics. It’s even more amusing when people reach back to the past, 200 or 300 years ago to show how evil we were compared to today. Very stupid to judge people from another period of time. Future generations might judge you from their time period. You might be the bigoted ahole you all wail about.

Posted by WintersWar | Report as abusive

A worthy interpretation of the 2012 election would involve researching the reasons why some registered Republicans in the white male demographic voted against Mitt Romney. Some voted for Obama, some for Gary Johnson and even some for Virgil Goode.

The Republican loss was not necessarily a Democratic victory. Some Republican voters turned away from the extreme social policies of some of the candidates but that should not be considered an abandonment of more moderate Republican economic ideals. On the other hand, many Republicans with more extreme economic views turned away from Romney for fear that the former governor of Massachusetts was too far to the economic left.

Another indisputable demographic fact worth considering is that voters who were less than twenty in this election were born during the Clinton administration. They did not grow up watching John Wayne or Ronald Reagan. They were born into a different world, but that does not necessarily invalidate the past.

Obama had to have some John Wayne in his gut to run for First Black President of the United States with 2 WARS and a major economic crisis. I could be wrong.

Posted by MICHAELDONELLO | Report as abusive

I voted for President Obama, as a descendant of honest hard working white folk, not because he stood up against John Wayne, but because his opponent kept slithering from one position to the next.

If you want to comment about the President’s reelection victory and the underlying demographics which MAY have been the key, fine. To suggest, however, that our President somehow killed an Icon of American values strikes me as inflammatory and the scribblings of a romancer, whom all should ignore.

Posted by krimsonpage | Report as abusive

More the point, the title should have been “How Barack Obama feminized America.”

Obama represents the idea that traditional family, honor, and morality have no place in today’s world of decadence, instant gratification, and special interests. Barry may be ‘King’, but he’ll never be more than ‘King Nothing’. I hope the americans that voted for Obama suffer horribly for their ignorance.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

I spoke with a POW from WWII one time. He told me that after the war he attended a dinner where John Wayne was the guest speaker. He was honored to sit next to John Wayne. This ex-POW told Wayne, “When I got captured I thought about you Mr. Wayne. I though what would John Wayne do? And so when they interrogated me I told them to, ‘Go to H*ll.’ And you know what Mr. Wayne, those Germans beat the heck out of me.” So the moral of the story is John Wayne was an actor. He played tough parts in movies. But real life isn’t a movie. It just isn’t. And if you try to pretend it is, you are likely to get you keester handed to you on a plate. Obama isn’t a movie. I’m a white male and a realist. I think the GOP has wondered off into some sort of pretend world that doesn’t apply. I used to support the GOP, but they’ve gone over the edge. And, I don’t want America’s keester handed to it on a plate.

Posted by Blind_Dawg | Report as abusive

80 to 90 % of lawmakers in this country are still, and always will be, white christian males. Even our British counterparts, who I would say are less discriminating than Americans, have an overwhelming majority of Anglo-Saxon males in parliament. Oceania has, and always will be run this way Winston. Though many non-whites like yourself are willfully ignorant of this.

Posted by brianwayne72 | Report as abusive

I really enjoyed reading this article (All the World’s a Stage…), but I believe that this election was a lot more about Wall Street and Great Wall of China rather than Hollywood.
When living organisms face new reality(!) they either adapt or die…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Having been a neighbor of Marion Michael Morrison’s for many years, I and my sisters were often invited to come to his mini-ranch to play. I never got to know him well, but it was extremely obvious that MMM was nothing like John Wayne and carefully crafted on-screen persona that helped to sell pictures. It was years before I learned why there was a harp in his living room.
I can say that he was fairly down to earth and seemingly shy.
Reagan, the multi-millionaire who campaigned as the “people’s man” used to get my dad mumbling, “I wish I were a ‘people’s man’ with a net worth in the hundreds of millions.”
Public personas may have little or nothing to do with the reality. At least the Magical Myth had not the slightest compunction of hiding his affiliation with the Tenth Percenters, forever babling spoiled rich boy out-of-touch sentiments that weren’t gaffes, but clear signs of a firmly held worldview. “I like to fire people! Don’t you?” “I wouldn’t hire illegals. I’m running for political office for God’s sake!” The 47% statement wasn’t even the slightest surprise except that a few people were actually surprised. “I don’t care about the poor. They have a safety net.” “You stupid students, don’t get money from the government. Borrow from your parents!” Could we possibly have gotten anyone who so deliberately wanted to sound out-of-touch? Who would be impressed by such silly comments? Why, the Members of the Tenth Percenters Club, of course!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Perhaps Wayne’s patriotism was displayed so eagerly because he did not enlist to fight in WWII like so many other famous actors of that age. Much like the beloved dick cheney, wayne had other priorities.

Posted by fromthecenter | Report as abusive

The reason why Romney didn’t get elected was simply because he embraced traditional core values: such as family as the foundation of our society, defense of life rather than abortion rights,straight vs.gay agendas and denouncing the increasing poverty rate in America and correlated middle class demise. The undecided swing voters didn’t subscribe to those values, that’s why they remain “undecided” in the first place. A man of integrity like Romney wouldn’t blur his discourse compromising these core values for the sake to win this “unsettled” voters or to that matter, to cash into the 51.42% Pro-Obama popular vote.

Posted by greatdebate | Report as abusive

People, including the author, dislike John Wayne for one primary reason — they dislike white, protestant heritage men. The blatant racism / sexism of that visceral dislike pours from the article and the commentary. The fact is most people in this country now treat white men like they treat fire ants. With poison.

Yes, by the measure of a shrinking population of increasingly poor and disenfranchised white men America is making good progress. Oh, very few white men are like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates — go look under any decent sized urban American bridge. That is the only place where you will find a growing population of white men. Congratulations to us!!

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

John Wayne wasn’t killed by President Obama;

he grew old and succumbed to tobacco-related lung cancer which, of course, was self-inflicted.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Excellent article with a legitimate analogy.

Being in advertising & film production for more than 40 years I can attest to America’s (and now the World’s) insatiable hunger for idols & gimmicks.

John Wayne only acted out masterfully the character & script he was given by his producers, whose only concern was the box office sales & many times political ideology as well.

The ‘Pure WASP Americans’ & the newly immigrant ‘wannabees’ new Americans wholeheartedly consumed the John Wayne image.

This is at the root of our today’s social discontent.

The media, especially motion films, as in Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message’, has proven to be more powerful than any government or institution.

The media works on your brain in ways you never thought possible.

Even in China the government controlled news agency Xinhua can ‘make or brake any politician’ as I was told by one of its top directors there last year.

Yes, most of us live in a fantasy world most of the time.
It is pleasant to our impaired intelligence and it is even easier pickings for the slimy & greedy profiteers.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

@stambo2001: Thanks for embodying the exact sort of attitude that is keeping the GOP out of the White House: “People who disagree with me are ruining America and deserve nothing less than absolute misery!”

@greatdebate: “Mitt Romney” and “integrity” in the same sentence? Comedic gold.

Posted by katzn | Report as abusive

@fromthecenter

Wayne was not allowed to enlist in WWII he was deemed too valuable to the war effort in his acting and also he was by then such an icon that the propaganda value of killing or capturing him would have been too damaging to morale

Posted by txguy2112 | Report as abusive

@txguy2112 Wayne was the only star at Republic Pictures, a small near bankrupt studio specializing in serials. The OSS needed to have a secretly owned movie (for propaganda) studio. It was cheap and available so they did need The Duke. Not because he was a big Star, but the only one with Republic who had any stature at all. You people need to know what your talking about before posting your own propaganda.

Posted by Rea1American | Report as abusive

And so John Wayne sits back on the front porch of his town and watches the bullies invade, intimidate, plunder, and take over his town, while he turns his attention to knitting and promoting the “paint everything purple” club which has a creed to eliminate the ability for anyone to have a prettier color on their house than anyone else.

Posted by SomeCommonSense | Report as abusive

If Wayne is masculinity and Obama femininity then I must have been connected with the wrong gender my entire life.

Posted by Bluebonnet_72 | Report as abusive