Thursday, January 19, 2012

John Wayne For President?

I have been watching the selection process for the Republican presidential nominee with much interest. It is generally agreed that Mitt Romney is the most likely candidate. But it has been amusing to watch as one by one, others have risen in the polls for a week or three, and then fallen for one reason or another. These are the Anybody-But-Romney candidates, and each has had the fleeting support of a party that really wants Ronald Reagan back. Nobody dislikes Mitt so much ... it's just that he doesn't have that conservative X-factor.

Sure he's handsome and well-presented, and the least likely to melt down, having already been well-vetted in his last unsuccessful bid, but he just does not speak to the inner-conservative within the rank and file. They just don't really like the guy much. He's too slick, too studied. They like their presidents a little folksier. They like a guy who spends his weekends in a faded blue work-shirt, chopping wood or clearing brush, like Dubya did. Like Reagan did. Nobody in the race bears the slightest resemblance to old tear-down-that-wall Reagan. But now Newt Gingrich, while looking as Reaganesque as Captain Kangaroo, is at least invoking His name. Constantly.

I live in an RV behind a house in Thousand Oaks California. After years in the funky, artsy hillside town of Altadena, I've moved up here to save money, tour a little more profitably, and just generally tighten the old belt in tough times. It's a pretty conservative area, a lot of horse properties, no crime to speak of ... a bit off the beaten track and nicely removed from the hustle and bustle. The main house here, which I sort-of watch after, is vacant much of the time. It was the home of Merwyn and Thelma Babcock. He was an airline pilot through the early golden-age of commercial flight. She made pottery, raised orchids and other kids, and outlived him by half a decade. She passed away in 2010. Thelma's furniture and personal affects are still in the house. On one wall, a framed photo of Ronald Reagan. It looks as natural as anything, hanging there against the sixties-era wood paneling. I never knew Thelma, but I know something about people with the Gipper smiling from their walls.

Long ago my best friend in all the world was a guy named Glen Knabenshue. He was a great Kerouakian character; strong, tanned, a little hyper, and a magnet for all women young and old. He was a hippie on the surface, but there was a warrior's soul just below the gentle trappings of the day. His mother was a pretty, frail woman, softly spoken and no match for her son's energies. He was uncontrollable. She adored him for it. Apart from Glen, and her husband John, she loved only one man truly ... John Wayne. There were a dozen framed photos and paintings too. There were even statues of him on horse-back of the kind one might buy through an ad in Argosy magazine. Of course she owned the collectors plates as well, and displayed them proudly.

Why am I telling you this? Well ... as Reagan might begin, I'm drawing a through-line from John Wayne through Ronnie and on into George W. Bush. It's my way of suggesting that the modern archetype for proper conservative leadership began in the western movies of the thirties and forties. I recently saw my daughter get married on Catalina Island in the old Zane Grey house. He had another, bigger house near my old place in the foothills of the San Gabriels. He made a fortune spinning tales of strong, simply spoken men who rode into danger on horseback for no gain greater than to see justice done.

During the years that Grey's books slowly took over knotty-pine bookshelves, cowboy heroes ruled the movie screen. They started out a little soft and sang a bit too much, but evolved into plain-spoken sheriffs and trail bosses, who lived by a short list of unquestioned rules, and would speak to you with clenched-fist sign language if you were slow to understand them. They were not shy about kicking ass, but they held themselves to a rigid code of honor. You didn't shoot a man in the back. You didn't take something you didn't earn. And you would risk your life in a second to protect the innocent. John Wayne, more than any other, embodied this man. Even in his golden years he made a string of well-received westerns after the genre was thought kaput.

Our parents' generation really resonated to this type of character. They'd come through a depression, and were not so impressed by the Wall Street tycoon. They may have been required to dress up for work, but in their minds they were frontier people, carving a spot for themselves and their families. the second world war was a John Wayne style war. We may have sent soldiers in Jeeps and planes, and dressed them in olive drab, but they were the cavalry riding to the rescue nonetheless. They were a righteous posse of vigilantes out to haul the rustlers up the nearest tree. And when the job was done they went home without the need for fanfare.

This is the American Archetype. And when a B-movie actor named Reagan ran for governor in the state of California, and a decade later for President of us all, his constituency were the one-time youngsters who'd cheered John Wayne through a hundred gun-fights. Reagan knew the power of this western mythos, and never missed a chance to be photographed outdoors in jeans and riding boots. The line got a little blurred, I think, between fantasy and reality. Not only was Ron Reagan not John Wayne, but neither of them were actually the hard-fisted men of action that they'd portrayed. But none of that mattered. Reagan may not have been a great thinker, but he was plenty smart enough to lock his vision down to core principals and go after the bad guys. The Soviets did fine, standing in for the evil cattle baron / railroad baron, and Americans were never more happily productive than when our old cowpoke was in the saddle. Shit, even Gorbachev dug it when Sheriff Reagan layed down the law. Maggie Thatcher was smitten too.

As were a small sub-set of young women, college age then, who were bored out of their minds by the wussified, over-sensitive young males they saw around them, cowering in fear of the feminists. These women grew up to be the Nikki Haleys, The Condoleezza Rices, The Sarah Palins.

Who'd have thought that a decorated Viet Nam vet who'd endured years of torture in the Hanoi Hilton would need to haul a woman out of Alaska to give him cred? Sure, they lost. He was too old, she was too green. But the point was made. It's the Reagan model - by way of John Wayne and the Western novelists, that best captures the American Image so dear to conservatives.  The tea party got it wrong, branding-wise. Waist-coats, and three-pointed hats? Tea? Too fey and Eastern.

So. Now we have a couple of smart rich guys, and an earnest born-again Pennsylvania Catholic, and a Texas congressman with a lot of wacky ideas. Who would they be in an old western movie?

Well ... Romney? The guy in the shiny stagecoach surrounded by lawyers and accountants moving money around and scooping some off the top. Sounds kinda like a baron of some kind, but not even with the cool imagery of cattle or railroads attached to him. Not John Wayne. Gingrich? The smooth talking circuit court judge peddling influence to guys like Romney. Also not John Wayne. Santorum? He'd've played the fire-and-brimstone preacher who gets killed by the outlaws before the posse even rides. Sooo not John Wayne.

Uh ... Ron Paul? Ron Paul is the one guy in town who wears a top hat. The slightly batty country doctor who's always showing up to spout non-sequiturs and laugh nervously. Comic relief. Not John Wayne.

Rick Perry seems spent, but I think he would've been head of the local Chamber of Commerce. He would've raised the reward money, and then stayed home.

So who will be our next President? Well nobody in sight is John Wayne, but at least Barack Obama has shot a few pirates and flushed out the world's most wanted outlaw. He'll have to do for now.

You suppose we could get him some lower-slung jeans? Maybe some boots ... a rawhide jacket and gloves give a man a certain look.

Dave Morrison, January 18, 2012

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