Blogs > There's No There There > An Election John Wayne Would Have Liked

Dec 12, 2016

An Election John Wayne Would Have Liked

tags: Murray Polner,John Wayne,Peter Steinfels,Lionel Stander

This post is by Murray Polner, a blogger, writer, HNN's senior book Department editor and author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, and When Can I Come Home, about those who refused to go to war.

"What kind of nation chooses as national leader a verbally abusive, politically inexperienced, temperamentally volatile, maddenly narcissistic, scapegoating demagogue?" asked  Peter Steinfels, my onetime editor  of Commonweal, in a recent issue of  the liberal Catholic magazine.

I may have found a partial answer years ago when I flew into Southern California's Orange County Airport after it had been renamed in honor of John Wayne, "a man of humility and a hero of the American West [who] was a symbol of the world of the traditional American values," or so the Airport's press release went. Looking up, there was The Duke on the Arrival level, 9 feet tall, and the hero of so many cinematic battles in so many wars.

One Hollywood maverick was the blacklisted actor Lionel Stander, he of the raspy voice who had appeared in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," and "The Loved Ones" and once the blacklist vanished, as Max, the faithful servant-driver on TV's "Hart to Hart." Stander had been an uncooperative and combative HUAC witness who condemned celebrities who had begged their inquisitors for forgiveness for their ill-advised leftwing politics.

Unlike The Duke, Stander had served three years in the Air Force. He was so bothered by the honor accorded Wayne that he told the NY Times, "I nominate John Wayne for a special Academy Award for the best non-supporting performance in WWII. He was just an unimportant cowboy actor at Monogram who happened to hit it big when the big stars, Robert Montgomery and Jimmy Stewart and Gable were away at war [while] Wayne never served a day."

As a veteran it also bothered me that a pro-war actor who cheered on Vietnam and condemned its draft resisters could be honored by local patriots and not those who had actually served or refused to bear arms, like WWII's Lew Ayres, Hollywood's Dr. Kildaire.

I wonder if the tribute to Wayne was a reflection of "American Exceptionalism," the indelible faith ingrained in us since elementary school whereby most of us believe that our way of life is eternally unique and merits worldwide admiration and respect even when we bomb the hell out of them.

Why shouldn't foreigners want to be like us? Think of all those countries we attacked who failed to appreciate their American liberators: Cuba, the Philippines, Russia, Mexico, American Indians, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Somalia. Have I forgotten any?

Still, Special Operations Iraq War vet Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds wrote in "God is Not Here: A Soldier's Struggle with Torture, Trauma and the Moral Injuries of War" about his fellow Americans "who live with their heads down, blind and oblivious to others who do their bidding, who do their dying."

For those, like The Duke, who support wars with someone else's family members doing the fighting and dying, it's what Hemingway called "that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it." 

During Ronald Reagan's proxy war in Central America, I hung Irving Howe's NY Times op-ed on my office wall because he suggested that the editors of two hawkish pro-contra wWar magazines  –  none of whose sons would ever wear a military uniform --might help "some American hearts beat a little fast at the sight of " their right-wing editors "donning fatigues to become contra 'freedom fighters.' "      

  "The truth is," wrote Walter Capps in The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience,  his rational 1990 book, "A great nation, even when it means well, can do more harm than good when it does not understand precisely what it is doing."

Did putting up that statue reflect some psychological need made worse by a constant series of American military defeats since 1945, a war won with considerable, if not always acknowledged, help from the Russians? Our vaunted, ultra- expensive military has only been able to smash the Grenadian and Panamanian behemoths and since 2001 remains buried in the Greater Middle East.

But back to Peter Steinfels's question. My guess is that many good people voted for Trump for the same reason the good citizens of Orange County decided to honor The Duke: The passion to bring back an imagined and idyllic past, when women and racial minorities knew their place, abortions and same-sex marriages were crimes, when intellectuals were "eggheads," when wars were won and when the Duke, Our Hero, Helped Make America Truly Great.

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