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Column: John Wayne’s heroism was fake. Take his name off Orange County’s airport

John Wayne chats with reporters in 1978 at the Orange County Airport, which became his namesake a year later.
(Los Angeles Times)

This is not as momentous an issue as tearing down monuments to Confederates who took up arms against the United States, removing the Confederate stars and bars from state flags, or striking the names of racists from universities, but, yes: It’s time to get John Wayne’s name off the Orange County airport.

That’s the view of the Democratic Party of Orange County, which passed a resolution to that effect on June 26.

“An airport name should reflect our values, and white supremacy isn’t one of them,” party Chair Ada Briceño stated after the vote. “If an honorary name does not reflect our ideals and values anymore, why not change it?”

I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.

John Wayne, 1971

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The movement to take Wayne’s name off an airport that it has adorned since 1979 last erupted in February 2019. That was in the wake of the rediscovery of an interview that the action movie star had given to Playboy in May 1971. I reported then that the interview bristled with Wayne’s contempt for Black people, Native Americans, gay people, and those he labeled leftists, socialists, and communists.

The movement to rename the airport went dormant for more than a year. It has become revived with the Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide reconsideration of which figures from American history we choose to honor in bronze and granite. For some reason, some Republicans are standing firm against this reconsideration.

President Trump has threatened to veto this year’s $740-billion defense appropriations bill if it includes an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), mandating the rechristening of military bases named after Confederate generals.

Trump roused himself Monday to post a tweet-plaint that “the Do Nothing Democrats want to take off the name John Wayne from an airport,” terming it “Incredible stupidity.”

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The Orange County Republican Party spoke up for leaving Wayne’s name on the airport, without managing to make much of a case for it.

“We are not talking about statues to defeated Confederate Generals that should not have been erected in the first place, we are talking about monuments to the ideals that make our nation unique,” the party said.

Bizarrely, it attributed the movement to rename the airport to a “totalitarian ideology” that ranged from to “the guillotine of the French revolution to the Bolshevik gulags, to Nazi concentration camps, to the Cultural Revolution in China, to the human burnings and beheadings of ISIS.”

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As for why the actor’s name should be on the airport, the party explained, “John Wayne has long stood as a symbol of rugged individualism and magnanimous dedication to his community. On screen, he was a bold and brave hero who stood against tyranny and cruelty. He demonstrated the idea that actions speak louder than words.”

This is partially true -- he did play “a bold and brave hero” onscreen -- and partially self-refuting. Wayne demonstrated that actions speak louder than words by not, in fact, acting like a hero in real life when circumstances called for it.

That was World War II. Wayne was 34 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and because of his age and position as breadwinner of a family, exempt from the draft.

Most people familiar with the life story of John Wayne are aware that the late movie star was a dyed-in-the-wool right-winger — after all, he was still making a movie glorifying America’s conduct of the Vietnam War (“The Green Berets,” 1968) well after the country had begun to get sick of the conflict.

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As Wayne’s biographers Randy Roberts and James S. Olson report, however, so too were such fellow Hollywood figures as Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Gene Autry, Tyrone Power and Clark Gable. They all enlisted, as did baseball stars Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

Wayne, however, kept finding excuses not to enlist -- the need to finish the next picture, for example -- earning the contempt of his friend and mentor, director John Ford, who had enlisted to form a field photographic unit.

“Never before or after,” Roberts and Olson observe, “would the chasm between what [Wayne] projected on the screen and his personal actions be so great.”

That brings us to the two events at the heart of the naming controversy -- the Playboy interview and the naming itself.

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The interview shows Wayne to be an unreconstructed conservative of a type that exemplified Orange County in the 1970s and 1980s.

He questioned whether Black Americans were prepared to play a leadership role in the nation’s political life: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” he said. “I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

He dismissed affirmative action: “The academic community has developed certain tests that determine whether the blacks are sufficiently equipped scholastically. But some blacks have tried to force the issue and enter college when they haven’t passed the tests and don’t have the requisite background.”

He delivered a standard white supremacist version of the history of white-Native Americanrelations: “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

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And he disparaged the movie “Midnight Cowboy” as “a story about two fags.”

Wayne’s defenders, including his family, have tried to minimize these words as reflections of an elderly man during an era very different from today. But that won’t do. Wayne was 63 when the interview was published, well shy of the doddering stage.

His views were no longer in the cultural mainstream in 1971: The civil rights revolution had been going on for years; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated three years before, the Voting Rights Act had been passed in 1965, and Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus had occurred in 1955 -- 16 years earlier.

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Wayne wasn’t expressing the tenor of the times — he was reacting to the advances being won by Black Americans.

As for the airport naming, that was not a deeply considered response to a public clamor but a last-minute political deal. A majority of the Orange County Board of Supervisors wished to expand the airport’s runways, but they were blocked by Supervisor Thomas Riley, whose Newport Beach constituents would bear the brunt of any resulting noise pollution.

Riley acceded to the majority after extracting a pledge to name the airport after Wayne, who had lived in Newport for about a decade and had died earlier in 1979. He had been Riley’s neighbor, though it’s unclear whether they knew each other.

Wayne had not played a significant role in the cultural or political life of Newport, but then, as now, his name was thought to exemplify a certain frontier ruggedness that seemed to suit an elevated self-image in some corners of the affluent county.

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Three years after the renaming, the airport installed a garish 9-foot-tall statue of “the Duke” at the main terminal. Newport Beach, however, hated the airport named after its late resident and still does; its complaints about aircraft noise account for the weird power-down actions that planes undergo over the community upon take-off.

Orange County today obviously doesn’t resemble the Orange County of yore. Rather than a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold, all six of its congressional seats are held by Democrats. No longer a caricature of a rich lily-white County, it’s 40% non-Hispanic white, 34% Hispanic, 21.7% Asian and 2.1% Black.

John Wayne never did enough to warrant placing his name on the airport. Today, it belongs there less than ever.


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