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.