John Wayne: Politics–Mellowing of Hawk

In the l970s, Wayne showed little concern that the world around him had changed and that his ideas had become obsolete. Yet it is precisely his being old-fashioned, which made people of all political persuasions accept him as an American institution.” He became a living legend in his own time, a term he said he disliked, but one suspects really enjoyed. He continued to advocate his old American ideals, but, curiously, they increased rather than diminished his popularity. Wayne’s fans and detractors agreed on one thing–what he said “is not nearly as important as the fact that he says it.”

After winning the Oscar Award, in 1970 for “True Grit,” Wayne mellowed and became softer; even his life-long hatred of Communism seemed to have diminished. “Communism is quite obviously still a threat,” he proclaimed in l974, “yet, they are human beings, with a right to their point of view.” This statement is very different from his view of Communism a decade or two earlier.

Not that he endorsed it as a legitimate ideology, “you certainly don’t want your children to share their point of views.” But his major concern now was to see that the Communists “don’t disrupt what we’ve proven for 200 years to be a pretty workable system, in which human beings can get along and thrive.”

Wayne also started to meet more frequently with the press, though he preferred to talk about his work rather than his politics, which was another significant change from the past. True, he muted many of his views, and observers noted that those he did express have become more moderate–just like his screen image.

He deliberately avoided political arguments in talk shows and was reluctant to discuss controversial issues. In the past, he was pushed, he said, to make extreme statements that seemed bland orally, but outrageous when printed. There have been too many inaccurate and nasty remarks about his politics, which now he was determined to avoid. In fact, he became so sensitive to his public image that he demanded approval of every word written about him before granting an interview.

All of a sudden, his critics became aware that he was more intelligent, more literate, and wittier than he had ever been given credit for. People began to realize that his personality was more complex and volatile, that his views were subtler than previously assumed. His basic views had not changed much; what changed was his style, the way he said things rather than what he said. His interviews became more cautious and his wording more self-conscious. He also became more tolerant of opposing views, determined to get involved only when he thought it was necessary to express his views.

This change of style had immediate results on his standing with the American public. He began to win the respect of people who used to despise him. Terry Robbins, a Chicago coordinator for the radical S.D.S., described Wayne as “terrific and total.” “He’s tough, down to earth, and he says and acts what he believes, ” Robbins said, “He’s completely straight and really groovy.” Aby Hoffman, leader of the Yippie movement, admired Wayne’s “wholeness, his style.” Even those who continued to disagree with him on political grounds, found it impossible not to like him. “There are some people with whom I wouldn’t agree politically,” said singer Joan Baez, but “they haven’t made themselves that offensive to me, like John Wayne.”

She never forgot his appearance in Laugh-In,” in which he held up a red-white-and blue daisy and solemnly recited, “The sky is blue, the grass is green, get off your butt and be a Marine.” This reflected, in her view, two important qualities he possessed: self-parody and naivet.

Wayne said that one of the ways he changed was that only spoke his mind when he had “something worth saying.” Asked for his opinion of Jane Fonda, he replied, “I think she’s a little mixed up in her thinking,” and Fonda, in her reaction to his comment said, “I don’t know the man, but I think he’s got guts.”

Wayne ignored his political differences with Jane Fonda and showed up at a party celebrating her Oscar Award. Joan Baez, Jane Fonda, and others stood at the opposite pole of the political spectrum; they were to the left what Wayne was to the right, but they came to live with each other’s views.

In the last decade of his life, his politics, unlike his screen image, defied easy labeling because they were inconsistent. “Nobody knows what my politics are,” he said in l976, “they think they do, but they don’t.” He even seemed to take the press less seriously: “The Eastern writers would always come out and ask me about my politics and I’d tell them, but I could see that they weren’t the right answers. It wouldn’t be what they’d expected, so they’s go off and write what I didn’t say.” At present, though, “when they ask me I tell them, ‘Is this what you want me to say’ and I tell them what they expect to hear and they go away satisfied.”

One of the referendum issues on the California ballot in the 1972 Elections was a proposition that would have rigidly codified public obscenity laws, encouraging arrests of pornography peddlers. Wayne, and nearly two thirds of California’s voters, found the proposition repressive and untenable. However, this “liberal” attitude astonished his friends, especially his radio commercials, in which he told voters: “You don’t get rid of a bad situation with a badly written law, or cut off a foot to cure a sore toe.”

Even more astonishing was his support of the Panama Canal Treaties, which outraged many of his conservative fans. He became the target of hate mail, he said, accusing him of “falling off my horse too many times.” However, he stood
firm and justified his support: “I’ve recently studied the Treaties, and supported them on the basis of my belief that America always looks to the future and that our people have demonstrated qualities of justice and reason for 200 years.” He reminded that when Eisenhower appeared to have given the sovereignty of the Canal away, by allowing the Panamian flag to fly there, “neither Congress, the press, nor the conservatives uttered any kind of cry.”

Wayne’s support of political issues, if they were on the “right side,” were sought by the Administration. Lobbying for the legislation needed to implement the Panama treaties was one of his last public acts. In a mailgram to Thomas O’Neill, the House Speaker, Wayne wrote: “We made a commitment to Panama and we must live up to it. Is it too much to ask for a friendly nation which has sided with us in every international emergency since its existence.” He also sent a telegram to General Omar Torryas, Panama’s leader, offering best wishes for a good relationship between the two countries. He said he had sent the message as a matter of “polite protocol,” after having business and personal ties in Panama for almost forty years.

The best indication of his mellowing was his attitude toward the younger generation, “the future of America.” Unlike the past, he now said he didn’t blame the kids for their restlessness and that “ideally, they’re right, of course, in demonstrating for what they believe.” But he still wished “they knew more about Communism than just its theories. I wish they knew its reality. He could not tolerate seeing some of them carrying the Vietcong flag in demonstrations. “Many people seem to stupidly think,” he warned, “that by just doing anything, Communism will go away. It won’t. And then we’ll have another Dark Age.” He always felt it was “much easier for me to start a conversation with a younger person than the other way round.”

And he did; the kids who appeared in The Cowboys” were all over him all the time. He did not think there was a great difference between yesterday and today’s kids: “I think it’s more a matter of our social and political leaders changing their attitudes rather than the kinds changing theirs.” However, he thought “there’s not enough ‘Don’t do that! And don’t touch!'” As his movies stated, he believed that human behavior “requires a certain amount of restraint from the responsible people in the country to keep the young generation on the straight-and-narrow.”

“Kids today are thrown in contact with temptations to new experiences that my generation wasn’t,” because “communication is so much better.” However, “it hasn’t seemed to affect the younger generation as the blue noses would expect.” “The only generation gap,” he said humorously, was “soap and water…Goddamn, if they’d just wash a little more.”

He increasingly became aware of his functions as a public figure, functions that went beyond being a movie star. He lectured against the use of drugs to youngsters on several occasions. In l972, he went with Bob Hope to his former school, University of Southern California, to talk to students. He insisted on writing his own speech, about the radical movements on campus, the university as a learning place, and the importance of tradition.

He told the students they should have respect for the faculty and for the institution, that violence and vandalism are never justified, and that they don’t have the right to control their schools because they are owned by the tax payers of California. Wayne later reconstructed this experience: “When I stood up to speak, Bob Hope went over to the other side of the stage. He thought I was going to get up everything in the place thrown at me. And so did I.” At first, there was booing and hissing, but once again his honesty and straightforwardness proved winning and by the end of his speech the students gave him a standing ovation.

Wayne complained that the younger generation “doesn’t seem to have any respect for authority anymore.” “These student dissenters,” he said, “act like children who have to get their own way about everything.” “Under the guise of doing good, these kids are causing a hell of a lot damage,” and “they’re starting something they’re not going to be able to finish.” He also denounced the youngsters challenge of “every law in the U.S. and the rules of decent personal conduct, which we have established through generations and generations of human relationships.”

“It’s sad that each time they do something provocatively, they get so much newspaper and TV space,” because “it’s only one or two percent of the kids who are involved in things like taking over college offices.” “All the publicity draws other kids to them, the hero-worshippers,” instead of being classed “as they should be, as an unwelcome part of our social life.” He was even more upset with the faculty: “they get away with it because maybe 10 percent of the teaching community is behind them, urging them on.”

He could not conceal his bias against intellectuals and academics, also expressed in his movies. “It takes fifteen years of kissing somebody’s backside for a professor to get a chair somewhere and then he is a big shot in a little world, passing his point of view to a lot of impressionable kids.” He considered the academic world an ivory tower, with its inhabitants possessing “a completely theoretical point of view of how it (the world) should be run and what we should do for our fellow men.” Once, in a moment of anger, he claimed that ‘the disorders in the schools are caused by immature professors who have encouraged activists.”

Wayne at Harvard Lampoon Club

The Harvard Lampoon Club invited Wayne in January 1974 to premiere his film McQ” at Cambridge, challenging him to debate its liberal students. The club’s editors sent Wayne a rather cynical invitation: “We’ve heard you’re supposed to be some kind of legend, everybody talks about your he-man prowess, your pistol-packing, rifle-toting, frontier-taming, cattle-demeaning talents, your unsurpassed greatness in the guts department.” “You think you’re tough,” wrote James M. Downey, in the invitation, “We’re not so tough. We dare you to have it out, head
on, with the young whelps here who would call the supposedly unbeatable John Wayne, the biggest fraud in history.”

Wayne liked the “guts” of the challenge, but replied, “Sorry to note in your challenge that there is weakness in your breeding, but there is a ray of hope in the fact that you are conscious of it.

Provoked by their suggestion that he didn’t have the courage to go, he decided to attend. He was not in the greatest company; the previous visitor of the Lampoon Club was Linda Lovelace, the star of the porn movie Deep Throat.” However, amused by the mock of it, he showed up with an iron horse and soldier sidekicks, provided by the Army Reserves, much to the dissatisfaction of the Pentagon.

Wayne arrived in a tank-like personnel carrier, stood in the hatch carrying an unloaded and inoperative gun. Some Lampoon members dressed as cowboys, firing toy guns, while others threw snowballs at him. But he took the whole thing humorously and throughout the ceremony waved and signed autographs.

Wayne first met with the Club’s editors, then faced a mass meeting of students, who fired questions fast, but he answered all of them.

The following is a sample of the interchange:

Q: Do you look at yourself as the fulfillment of the American Dream
A: I don’t look at myself more than I have to.

Q: Is the session being taped
A: Well, if it is I hope the guy taping it is a Democrat, because if he’s Republican you would lose it.

Q: Would Nixon portray John Wayne in the filmed biography of Wayne’s career
A: Well, Richard’s good enough actor to do it, I suppose.

Q: What’s your opinion of the women’s liberation movement
A: I think women have a right to work anywhere they want to…as long as they have dinner when we want it.

Once again, Wayne proved that he could handle any crowd and any query with charm and even wit. Extremely relaxed, he seemed to have great fun communicating with the students. As time went by their initial hostility subsided and he won the students over. In the midst of the debate, a female student shouted, “I don’t care what they say, you’re still a man!”

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