California lawmaker Matthew Harper, a Republican representing one of the state’s more conservative pockets, delivered his pitch with the unrelenting enthusiasm of someone who grew up watching “True Grit” re-runs on late night TV.
“John Wayne was an important part of California’s history, and is especially important for Orange County,” the assemblyman said Thursday from the floor of the legislative chamber, touting a resolution that would declare May 26 John Wayne Day across California, in honor of the late actor’s birthday. “John Wayne represents values like self-reliance, patriotism and determination.”
Harper smiled wide as he carried on about the famous actor’s support of the military, his longtime Newport Beach home and beloved yacht, The Wild Goose. He boasted about the airport named after the actor in Southern California’s Orange County, and the 9-foot tall statue that towers there.
When Harper mentioned the years John Wayne played football at Southern California University, he threw up a “v” symbol with his hands, like any proud alumnus would.
Then he asked his colleagues to offer up a “yay” vote in support of John Wayne Day.
They didn’t, defeating the resolution on a 35-20 vote, reports the Associated Press, but only after a heated 20 minute debate about aspects of Wayne’s background that Harper failed to mention, blemishes that portray a far more complicated — and perhaps unsavory — version of John Wayne.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, started with Wayne’s support of the Communist-chasing House Un-American Activities Committee and extreme right-wing John Birch Society, and asked Harper if he had a favorite John Wayne quote he’d like to share.
Harper offered a butchered version of this one: “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.”
But it was all Alejo needed to make his point.
“I asked about quotes very intentionally,” he said, then read aloud several that were far less benign.
This quote, from a 1971 Playboy magazine article, resonated most:
We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
Alejo wasn’t the only member of the Assembly to quote that Playboy interview. Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said she didn’t grow up watching John Wayne films because her mother felt the violence toward Native Americans in those films was problematic. It is one thing, Gonzalez said, to be involved in a movie that portrays racism, but mirroring those views personally is far worse.
She then read aloud another quote from the Playboy interview, where Wayne talks about Native Americans:
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.
Next came Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, who is African American and said he had no intention of speaking out against the resolution initially, but felt compelled.
“I think when we come here to support a resolution, it’s something we believe in, it’s something we can wrap our arms around,” he said. “Certainly his movies are one thing, but in terms of his private life, and also his views, I find them very offensive.”
Gipson and Alejo both said they would not be able to return to their constituents and feel good about supporting a resolution that honored a man with a history of making racist, disparaging and hateful remarks about minority groups.
Several other lawmakers who were there Thursday, both Democrat and Republican, came to Wayne’s defense, listing other career highlights Harper left out in his introduction, including John Wayne’s commitment to helping Vietnamese refugees re-settle in the United States and the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1979, they said, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. He supported the Panama Canal treaties.
“He stood for those big American values that we know and we love,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, which is located in Orange County.
Then another Orange County lawmaker concisely articulated the tension that so often arises when government bodies and universities try to honor historical figures and inevitably find issues born from evolving societal values.
“Recognize that not any one of us is only the product of our worst feelings or statements, we are all much much more than that,” said assemblyman Donald P. Wagner, R-Irvine. “The point of this resolution is to recognize the symbolic importance of John Wayne and the persona that he projected for us and for our nation.”
“Every one of us is imperfect,” Wagner added.
In the last year, many Confederate flags across the country have been removed from government property and some schools named after prominent Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee have faced calls to change their names too. Former president Andrew Jackson’s face will be moved from the front to the back of the $20 bill and Black abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman’s face will be put on the bill’s front. President Woodrow Wilson is being condemned as a racist, with protesters urging removal of his portrait and a name-change for the Wilson Center.
Critics of these changes claim Americans are ignoring important aspects of the nation’s history and vilifying people for supporting ideas that may have been widespread at the time. Wagner called it “looking back from our modern perch.”
When the resolution failed, Harper said the cause was the “orthodoxy of political correctness,” according to the Associated Press.
“Opposing the John Wayne Day resolution,” Harper said in a written statement, reports the AP, “is like opposing apple pie, fireworks, baseball, the Free Enterprise system and the Fourth of July!”
California may not have gotten its own John Wayne Day, but those who are disappointed can always celebrate with Texas. The Lonestar State voted last year to make America’s most famous cowboy an honorary Texan.