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John Wayne is Dead

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He has been since 1979; about 28 years. But even just a casual observation of American culture and society suggests that he still ain’t buried. Never has that been more evident then now, as we approach the day (tomorrow) when he was born,100 years ago in Winterset, Iowa. And his momma named him Marion.

I probably shouldn’t have brought that up. but then I probably shouldn’t bring up any of the stuff I’m about to, because I’m sure “now is not the time.” But Marion (John?) isn’t going to have a centennial next week. And it’s not about him anyway. It’s about us.

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I have to confess, I haven’t seen a single John Wayne movie. There are a coupe of reasons. First, I can’t stand westerns. They bore me. Even growing up they bored me. It wasn’t until college that I figured out why. Westerns bored me because they all seemed to be about guys shooting each other because — for myriad reasons — they couldn’t fuck each other. At least not the movie cowboys. Later, a scene from the The Celluloid Closet confirmed it for me. Appropriately enough it was from one of Wayne’s movies, Red River.

A scene, of course, that Wayne wasn’t in. And I didn’t particularly miss him. I was more interested in where these two cowboys were going with this bit of pistol play. Turns out that it would take them several decades to get there. And when they did, Wayne would still be with us, because by the time he left he was as much a symbol and archetype as he was a person.

That’s why I’ve never seen a John Wayne movie. Stop ten guys on the street and ask them to do a John Wayne imitation. I bet you at least half of them will be able to pull off a recognizable John Wayne imitation. That’s because American men have never really stopped trying to be John Wayne, or at least trying to be the portrayed on screen, and many Americans have never stopped wanting a John Wayne, so much so that they project him onto whatever guy happens to be handy.

Especially since September 11, 2001. Nobody summed that up better than Peggy Noonan, who desperately wanted Wayne back and saw him in every rescue worker that came to Ground Zero.

Why? Well, manliness wins wars. Strength and guts plus brains and spirit wins wars. But also, you know what follows manliness? The gentleman. The return of manliness will bring a return of gentlemanliness, for a simple reason: masculine men are almost by definition gentlemen. Example: If you’re a woman and you go to a faculty meeting at an Ivy League University you’ll have to fight with a male intellectual for a chair, but I assure you that if you go to a Knights of Columbus Hall, the men inside (cops, firemen, insurance agents) will rise to offer you a seat. Because they are manly men, and gentlemen.

It is hard to be a man. I am certain of it; to be a man in this world is not easy. I know you are thinking, But it’s not easy to be a woman, and you are so right. But women get to complain and make others feel bad about their plight. Men have to suck it up. Good men suck it up and remain good-natured, constructive and helpful; less-good men become the kind of men who are spoofed on “The Man Show”–babe-watching, dope-smoking nihilists. (Nihilism is not manly, it is the last refuge of sissies.)

…I was there in America, as a child, when John Wayne was a hero, and a symbol of American manliness. He was strong, and silent. And I was there in America when they killed John Wayne by a thousand cuts. A lot of people killed him–not only feminists but peaceniks, leftists, intellectuals, others. You could even say it was Woody Allen who did it, through laughter and an endearing admission of his own nervousness and fear. He made nervousness and fearfulness the admired style. He made not being able to deck the shark, but doing the funniest commentary on not decking the shark, seem . . . cool.

But when we killed John Wayne, you know who we were left with. We were left with John Wayne’s friendly-antagonist sidekick in the old John Ford movies, Barry Fitzgerald. The small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator Barry Fitzgerald, who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing.

This was not progress. It was not improvement.

I missed John Wayne.

But now I think . . . he’s back. I think he returned on Sept. 11. I think he ran up the stairs, threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, came back down and shoveled rubble. I think he’s in Afghanistan now, saying, with his slow swagger and simmering silence, “Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy.”

I think he’s back in style. And none too soon.

Welcome back, Duke.

In fact, you might have thought the the “W” in George W. Bush’s name stood for “Wayne,” especially after his post 9/11 “megaphone moment.” But it became all too evident that Bush and the rest of the swaggering wanna-be cowboys around him weren’t so much channeling John Wayne as they were “playing cowboy,” and in a manner that suggests they haven’t seen to many John Wayne movies themselves, or stopped paying attention before the ending.

It’s a problem a lot of guys have, as one ambivalent John Wayne fan recently put it.

The Duke, as historian Garry Wills observed, “reverses the law of optics.” The farther away this hombre gets, the larger he looms. I’m talking not only about Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, conceived as a corrective to the gung-ho heroics of a Wayne war movie. Or about this week’s celebration of Wayne on Turner Classic Movies. Or about the restored Rio Bravo showing at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday. Or about the stat that in the history of Movies Unlimited, John Wayne has sold more units than any other actor.

I’m talking about this: When a Marine in Iraq shoots first and asks questions later, they say he “pulled a John Wayne.” When we think of masculinity, The Duke is the yardstick by which we measure it. When we think of those who are larger than life, Wayne is the authoritarian who commands respect or incites rebellion. In my case, both.

He, or at least the image he created, is so much a part of what we thin of as a “real man,” that it wouldn’t be surprising to find a line drawing up him next to the definition of that phrase if it ever makes it into the dictionary. For better or worse, Wayne, or a caricature of the characters he played have become the epitome of “manliness.”

Whether that should be the case or not is bound to be a topic of endless debate. But the “would-be Dukes” that have sprung up in his wake actually end up being a pale imitation of the ideal he’s supposed to have epitomized and they’re supposedly emulating.

I admit I’m a bit biased in this regard. LIke Ric Caric said in his post on MyDD, I prefer “the idea of a thousand masculinities blooming and all of them able to recognize women as equal selves and citizens. But, along with Caric, I can do without what he dubs the “weenie boy” variety.

EXACTLY WHO IS A WEENIE BOY? That’s a big question for the Bush administration and the right-wing. There are four key traits for weenie boys in politics.

You’ll have to read his post for an exposition on those four traits, because it’s his closing that I want to focus on here.

The ultimate triumph of the right-wing weenie boys though was making their own fantasies of out-sized masculinity into the dominant image of political manhood in the United States. This is what killed “big man on campus” types like Al Gore and John Kerry. Both Gore and Kerry were thorough embodiments of conventional masculinity. They were both popular, relatively secure guys who were ambitious, served in the military, and worked their way up the ladder. With the cooperation of the media, however, the right-wing weenie boys were able to trump the conventional masculinity of Gore and Kerry and make the “natural,” “assumed” manliness of the Democrats look artificial, contrived, and effeminate.

In many ways, the success of George Bush and the invasion of Iraq represented the political triumph of toxic weeniness in American politics. If the Democrats and liberals want to prevent the re-emergence of weenie-boy politics after the Democratic landslide of 2008, we need to develop a more critical perspective on the weenie boys now.

Unfortunately, it’s still working. Democrats are giving the “weenie boys” what they want, still buying the “all-hat-and-no-cattle” swagger imitation of Duke-dom. But that’s probably because so are many Americans, as will be explained below.

I’ll give George W. Bush credit, though. He seems to have gotten the pose, the swagger and most of the lines down. A movie critic for the Baltimore Sun, who credits Wayne with “[giving] manliness a quiet, endearing swagger,” also quotes Wayne from the 1946 Comedy WIthout Reservations.

He sums up his stance in a remarkable speech that memorializes the pioneers:

“Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age, for their crops, for their homes? They did not! They looked at the land, and the forest, and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids and their houses, and then they looked up at the sky and they said thanks, God, we’ll take it from here.”

Compare that to the Bush administration’s own Wayne-inspired policy and rhetoric.

Wayne’s character, Capt. Nathan Brittles, who is facing an Indian attack, advises a junior officer: “Never apologize, son. It’s a sign of weakness.”

It’s that attitude that some employees of the Pentagon, State Department and White House are urging President Bush to take when dealing with charges of Quran desecration and other allegations from radical Muslims. They’ve even sent a DVD copy of the film to the commander in chief.

“Their numbers are small,” explains Wheeler, “but they are seriously sick and tired of squishing-out to the hadjis (the nickname our soldiers give the Muslim terrorists in Iraq and their sympathizers – pronounced ‘hah-geez,’ referring to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca called the hadj). These sympathizers now include not just rioters on Pakistani streets but Newsweek magazine and Amnesty International.

…Wheeler says the goal of the John Wayne aficionados is to eliminate any “We’re sorry” message in State Department cables and communiqués, National Security Council analyses, and Pentagon press briefings – “and inserting in their place, however subtly worded in diplo-speak, the message: ‘If you don’t like it, stuff it.'”

Because apologizing (or compromising, or negotiating) is “soft” and feminine, and a man’s gotta stay hard or get penetrated, literally or figuratively; in this case by the needs, concerns, rights or even sufferings of others. But there’s a price to pay for it, as one LA Times columnist spelled out.

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of American masculinity when Newsweek branded his father a “wimp,” a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to look like a wimp is the key to Dubya’s psychology: the you-talkin’-to-me pugnacity at news conferences; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that moved G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on “Hardball,” for Freud’s sake — “what a stud.”

…But the hidden costs of our overcompensatory hypermachismo are far worse than a few politicians slimed by pundits. The horror in Iraq has been protracted past the point of lunacy by George W.’s bring-it-on braggadocio, He-Ra unilateralism and damn-the-facts refusal to acknowledge mistakes — all hallmarks of a pathological masculinity that confuses diplomacy with weakness and arrogant rigidity with strength. It is founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is but on a neurotic loathing of what it secretly fears it may be: wussy. And it will go to the grave insisting on battering-ram stiffness (stay the course! don’t pull out!) as the truest mark of manhood.

In that sense, we al have a little of “the Duke” in us. That’s we we haven’t yet sent Dubya riding off into the sunset. The reason why conservatives still adore Ann Coulter, is basically the same as the reason we haven’t impeached Bush yet and probably won’t.

But there’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off — and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness — come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.

…To this day, the primitive feeling that in response to 9/11 we had to hit hard at “the enemy,” whoever that might be, is a sacred cow. America’s deference to the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach is profound: It’s the gut belief that still drives Bush supporters and leads them to regard war critics as contemptible appeasers. This is why Bush endlessly repeats his mantra “We’re staying on the attack.”

The unpleasant truth is that Bush did what a lot of Americans wanted him to. And when it became clear after the fact that Bush had lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, it made no sense for those Americans to turn on him. Truth was never their major concern anyway — revenge was. And if we took revenge on the wrong person, well, better a misplaced revenge than none at all.

The problem is that it’s easy to idolize someone who now only lives on celluloid. He makes so few mistakes, and the ones he makes are predictable. It’s easy to imitate him. It’s easy to get the pose right, perfect his swagger, mimic his speech, and even throw in a bit of that “Eastwood squint” to update the effect a bit. But if you’re not careful, you end up getting the whole thing wrong.

As noted earlier, I too have been guilty of having referred to Bush’s approach to international politics as the John Wayne approach. I felt that Bush was purposely imitating what he considered to be John Wayne’s style. In Wayne’s movies, being hard-nosed and persistent in the name of justice got him his victory.

Now that the dust has settled, and now that we are chest-deep in an Iraqi quagmire despite the handover of governance to Iraqis, I started to reconsider what actually happened in the old John Wayne movies: the tough talk, the seemingly know-it-all attitude regardless of situation, country, or time period in the movies. I recalled many of the bar fights, the range wars, and problems with cattle rustlers in which Wayne had been involved in these movies. Originally, I compared Bush to the John Wayne character when Wayne had become part of a barroom brawl: chairs flinging, bottles crashing, fists flying and, of course, the obligatory smashing of the mirror on the barroom wall. But was that really John Wayne?

For the most part, John Wayne did not start the bar fight or the range war. In fact, it was usually a sidekick who would get into a fight because of having been teased by a sharp-shooting gunslinger. The sidekick was usually either clueless or arrogant. Invariably, the sidekick would start the fight, and then it became Wayne’s responsibility to protect his friend, along with truth and justice, from harm. John Wayne was, for the most part, on the side of law, order, and justice. Bush appears to have been acting more like the sidekick than like John Wayne.

Having come to this realization, I now believe that what the “coalition of the willing” needs is a John Wayne.

Instead, we got wanna-bes, “weenie boys,” and sidekicks. And, here’s the kicker, that’s actually what we want.

Don’t believe me? Consider our presidents. Without Wayne would we have been as likely to have every seen Reagan on a horse?

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Or Reagan as a cowboy?

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Would we have been treated to Dubya as a cowboy?

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Or Bush endlessly clearing brush?

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(By the way, what is this “brush”? Where does it come from? And why must it be constantly cleared?)

But, as much as the testosterone driven excesses of our “cowboy presidents” are due in part to the mold cast by Wayne. I guess to some degree we have him to thank for Brokeback Mountain too.

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Now there’s a legacy I can appreciate.


  1. I love westerns, but maybe that’s because I grew up in the west. I never liked John Wayne, though. In fact, I used his name as an insult for a couple of guys–one an over-achiever on my Outward Bound trip who wanted to take my pack in addition to his because I was so slow. But I recommend one film (although I realize this isn’t what your posting is about)–The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In it, John Wayne’s character, who represents the old western virtues of gunslinging and hard living, is supplanted by Jimmy Stewart’s character, who represents law, order, and reason. It’s an interesting film.

    John Wayne became superfluous to me when he starred in a film which venerated the Green Berets at the height of the Vietnam War. I thought, “Man, that guy just doesn’t get it.” I frequently think that about our current president.

  2. I got a lot of this post and will look at it again at greater length. I have my own tongue in cheek post on Wayne’s 100th at my Red State Impressions blog (


    Turkey´s intrusion too was early on
    Predicted; vacuum calling for Iran;
    A region thrown in utter disarray–
    Yet heedless those chose hard war-games to play
    (In which true-blood civilian lives were slain)
    As had but seen war-movies with John Wayne.
    As far as John from Marion
    The will of God from carrion.

  4. I could not stand westerns, although I do like some country music. My dad, on the other hand is a full blown cowboy and only watches westerns. I saw “The Dark Knight” last night and it was way better than any of those boring westerns. Westerns are about guys shooting at other guys. That is it. “The Dark Knight” had guys shooting at other guys, but there was good reason for it. Heath Ledger went over the top with his portrayal of the Joker. The Joker was a pure psycho and not a clown to laugh at. Like the last film Batman was a kick ass hero, the total opposite of the 60s Adam West version (although as a kid I liked the Batman TV show). Christian Bale is much closer to the Dark Knight than any of the other actors who have put on the cowl. Add in the terrific Bat Gadgets and other special effects and a surprise second villian and you have one hell of a movie that blows any western away.