Democrats, John Wayne both dead, but...

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

The latest poll is not good for the Democrats. I am not talking here of the one showing George Bushs approval rating inching up nor the one showing immense if dangerously ignorant support for domestic spying. Im talking about the recently released Harris Poll showing John Wayne one of the most popular movie stars of 2005. The one thing he and the Democratic Party have in common is that they are both dead.

Wayne was the quintessential anti-Democrat. Never mind if he was a Republican, which he was. What matters most is that everything he stood for -- from support for the Vietnam War to antipathy to the 60s and 70s counterculture -- was in consonance with GOP positions. More important, though, his iconic man-on-horseback image has been adopted by virtually the entire Republican Party. As a boy, Newt Gingrich tried to walk like Wayne. Now the entire GOP does.

The Harris people tell us that Wayne, tied for third with Harrison Ford, is a particular favorite of men. Tom Hanks (No. 1 two years in a row) is beloved by women and both Wayne and Hanks are the choice of conservatives. (Liberals chose Johnny Depp and Southerners picked Brad Pitt, but he still finished out of the running at No. 11. On the other hand, he got Angelina Jolie which is, as they say, tres jolie.)

But it is Wayne who both fascinates and, as usual, commands. He personifies the gender gap, the virtually habitual way white men vote Republican. There are many reasons for this -- Democratic feminism, affirmative action, etc. -- but one of them surely is that the John Wayne-style of the GOP appeals to the cowboy in most men. Even I, Eastern dude that I be, dispatch some awfully mean hombres in the occasional daydream, and if Im going to seize a beachhead, Id rather follow the Duke than, say, Johnny Depp. Sorry, my man, but thats the way it is.

Back when I met Wayne, he was something of a joke -- a dated, pro-war caricature. It was 1977 and the Duke had been invited to Jimmy Carters pre-inaugural gala at the Kennedy Center. How the famously Republican Wayne got there, I cannot explain. How I got there is even more of a mystery, since I was not in the audience or in some press pen but backstage, in the wings, just as the Duke was finishing up addressing the crowd. When he was through, he walked right at me, coming closer and closer -- looming as huge (6-foot-4) and formidable as he seemed on the screen. John Wayne did not play in Westerns. John Wayne was a Western.

Since that night, Ronald Reagan -- John Wayne with a subscription to the National Review -- has come and gone. Reagan adopted the Wayne persona: the smiling, happy cowboy. (Actually, Wayne hated horses and never rode if he could possibly avoid it.) Now we have another Wayne in the White House, another rancher who doesnt ranch, a cowboy who doesnt ride. No matter. George Bush shed his familys Eastern ways just as surely as Wayne did his prosaic Iowa upbringing as Marion Morrison, son of Clyde the pharmacist. None of that mattered. He still managed to personify the West, just as he bristled military valor without having spent a day in the military. As Dick Cheney knows, its safer that way.

You can scan the length and breadth of the Democratic Party and not find any breadth, and no Wayne figure either. It is certainly not Hillary Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry or Mark Warner. None of them seem to have what it takes to appeal to white, male voters. But if you should happen to be in room 241 of the Russell Senate Office Building, youll find Wayne galore: pictures of John McCain in various Arizona settings. Hes a two-fer -- a military hero and a Westerner. Democrats, beware.

OK, the qualities of John Wayne are not all that matters. Bill Clinton won twice and he aint no cowboy. So it can be done. But Wayne still reigns because he evoked qualities that Americans -- especially American men -- like. In that blur of movies and life, he was strong on defense, strong on strength, violent with enemies, gentle with women, always fair, articulate with a shrug of the shoulder and he knew just how to walk. He played cowboys and soldiers, almost always the hero. In the Harris Poll, hes ahead of Julia Roberts, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Sean Connery and Sandra Bullock. Democrats take note. The Duke is still king.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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