John Wayne: Role and Participation in Presidential Elections

In the 1950s, Wayne became one of Hollywood’s out front, rightwing Republican actors.

Alongside with Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor, and Jimmy Stewart, supported Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and in 1956.

During the Cold War, he felt that both parties were too soft with the Russians and too remiss in not selling the American supremacy to the world. “Why don’t both our Presidential candidates,” asked Wayne in 1960, “emphasize that this is the greatest nation in the history of the world”

John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev

He was displeased with “the gentle treatment” of Khrushchev at the United Nations: “I want to go on record saying I’m proud the President of the United States is a gentleman, but I wouldn’t care if he walked up and punched Khrushchev in the nose. I’d applaud and holler, ‘Attaboy Ike.'” “I want no one running our country,” he stated, “who doesn’t have the brains, strength, and pure guts to face any other country that wants to take its best shot at us.”

Wayne and Richard Nixon

Wayne backed Richard N. Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972, and Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. He never served as delegate to a convention, preferring to rally and donate contributions to his favorite candidates. Rumor has it that George Wallace considered Wayne as vice-president candidate, which the actor denied. “Mr. Wallace has some good ideas,” he said, “but I’m certainly not a backer of his.”

He also denied the rumor that he had given three weekly checks, each for 10,000 dollars, to Wallace’s campaign, inscribing on the back of the last one, “Sock it to ’em. George.”

In 1968, Wayne feared that The Green Berets “will help reelect President Lyndon B. Johnson because it shows the war in Vietnam is necessary,” but he was relieved when Johnson decided not to run for a second term.

Wayne’s speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Florida, which received wide television and press coverage, gave him a unique opportunity to express his patriotic views.

He recounted an earlier conversation with Dean Martin, who had asked him, what were his hopes and dreams for his young daughter.

Recalled Wayne: “I told him I wanted her to be as grateful as I am. Grateful for every day of my life than I wake up in the United States of America.” He said he would teach his daughter the Lord’s Prayer and some of the Psalms, “I don’t care if she memorizes the Gettysburg Address, but I hope she understands it.”

After winning the 1970 Oscar Award, President Nixon told him on the telephone, “I’m proud of you, on screen and off.” He also received a congratulatory wire from former President Johnson; both Nixon and Johnson watched the Oscar Show on television. Despite his partisan politics and consistent support of the Republican platform, he won the respect of Johnson and other Democratic leaders. Johnson called him on his sixty-fifth birthday to express his personal wishes. Challenged about his friendly connection with the Democrats, he said: “I was raised Republican, but when a good Jeffersonian Democrat does a good job, I’ll say so.”

Wayne had a special relationship with President Nixon, whom he respected, particularly in his handling of the Vietnam War. “The only way to get 52,000 men home,” he said, “was to make the decision to mine Haiphong Harbor,” and Nixon “had the courage to make the decision.” “When the other side started using prisoners of War as pawns,” elaborated Wayne, “he had to make the awesome decision to bomb Hanoi, which he did, and then he brought the prisoners of war home.”

Wayne and the Watergate Scandal

During the Watergate crisis, Wayne felt the press was hostile to Nixon and was “out to get him just because a bunch of jerks underlings acted stupidly.” He believed that “the President is too great a man to be mixed up in anything like Watergate,” and reminded the public of his achievements in foreign policy and his record in “China, inflation, and Vietnam, a war he did not start.”

He was therefore shocked by the results of the scandal and Nixon’s resignation. He credited reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post for their investigation–he read and enjoyed their first book, All the President’s Men.” But he did not approve of their second, The Final Days”: “They made their points and got their fame and money, but it wasn’t enough, and they went on to that dirty, vulturish book that so far as I’m concerned broke the heart of that lovely lady, Pat Nixon.”

Regarding Watergate as “a sad and tragic accident in history,” Wayne stated firmly: “They’re wrong, dead wrong those men at Watergate. Men abused power, but the system still works. Men abused money, but the system still works. Men lied and perjured themselves, but the system still works.” So optimistic was his belief in the American political system. At the same time, he was convinced that “When they’re writing the history of this period, Watergate will be no more than a footnote.”

Wayne was the chairman of an exclusive organization, the Golden Circle Club, whose aim was to raise money to elect Republican candidates to the Senate and the Assembly. Members joined this Club by invitation only, at fees ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.

Wayne also was on the board of a group that launched a campaign to assure Spiro T. Agnew was on the GOP ticket. Agnew’s resignation, following the scandal over his tax evasions, was yet another political blow. He refused to comment on the incident, confirming that he endorsed Agnew’s attitudes, but “I knew nothing of his private affairs,” and “was sadly disappointed to discover his feet of clay.”

Wayne and Ronald Reagan

Wayne supported Ronald Reagan, his close friend, throughout his political career, first as president of the Screen Actors Guild (from 1947 to 1952 and in 1959-1960), then as Governor of California (in 1966 and 1970), and finally as a Presidential candidate in the 1976 Elections. He was reportedly furious at those poking fun at the idea of having an actor for Governor and later President. “Jimmy Stewart was a Colonel and he led 150 airplanes across Berlin,” he reminded, “what is all this crap about Reagan being an actor.”

Once, on their way to Reagan’s second inauguration as Governor, Stewart and Wayne encountered a crowd of demonstrators waving the Vietcong flag. Stewart had just lost a son in Vietnam. Wayne excused himself for a moment and walked into a crowd; within seconds, the demonstration retreated. He backed Reagan as the Republican candidate in l976, because he was “the last voice in the wilderness,” as the nation drifted, in his view, toward “democratic despotism.” He was an advocate of Regan’s policy of “less regulation, less taxation,” which he viewed as part and parcel of Republican Federalism.

When Reagan lost the Party’s nomination, he rallied behind Gerald Ford. One suspects that, had he lived, Wayne would have been proud of Reagan’s regal style of presidency in the l980s.

Wayne and Jimmy Carter

Despite partisan politics, Wayne maintained good rapport with the Democrats. He accepted an invitation to the pre-inaugural gala for President-elect Jimmy Carter in January 1977, shocking many of his fans. “I’m told it is a nonpolitical affair,” he explained, “and the proceeds will be used to cover the inaugural activities…and will relieve the taxpayers of that burden.” He appreciated the invitation because after all, “he is my President too, and he asked me.”

Wayne now considered himself “a member of the opposition, the loyal opposition,” with “accent on loyal…I would not have it any other way!” He said that occasionally he wrote Carter a note about foreign policy or other matters. President Carter proclaimed that Wayne was one of his most favorite movie actors, and considered him “a national asset.”

In May 1979, Carter visited him at the hospital and told him he had the “love and affection and best wishes, not only of all the people of our nation who admire him so much, but of millions of people around the world.”

There has been no other actor who has won the consistent praise of six Presidents: Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. “Wayne was true grit on and off the screen,” said Nixon, “the screen roles he played and the life he lived will inspire Americans of generations to come.” Wayne was described by him as “a definite part of the education, or should we say the conditioning, of most Americans.”

Former president Ford said that, like so many other good Americans, Wayne “never lost that sense that there is some higher good.” “No one can discharge his duties or obligations as a good citizen who isn’t involved in causes,” Ford continued, “even though they are somewhat controversial.”

Former President Carter eulogized him as “a symbol of many of the most basic qualities that made America great.” “In an age of few heroes,” Carter elaborated, “he was the genuine article.” “Wayne’s ruggedness, tough independence, sense of personal conviction and courage–on and off the screen reflected the best of our national character.”