In 2016, officials at California’s Bob Hope Airport came to a decision: The comedian’s name needed to go. Never mind the fact he was still well-loved by millions of fans around the world. People in the tourism community believed more travelers would use the airport if they realized it was close to the area’s main attractions. “Bob Hope isn’t doing it,” as one airport commissioner said. So goodbye Bob Hope, hello Hollywood Burbank Airport. Almost no one complained. Business is business, after all.

Unfortunately, a similar scenario is not playing out in nearby Orange County in 2020, where the local Democratic Party is now demanding that actor John Wayne’s name be stripped from their local airport for a much better reason than mere dollars and cents. “An airport name should reflect our values, and white supremacy is not one of them,” as local Democratic Party Chair Ada Briceño said.

This should be an easy decision. Wayne, like many an actor fond of opining on politics, was not exactly shy about sharing his views. In an interview he gave to Playboy in 1971 — one that regularly makes the rounds five decades later — Wayne let loose with such thoughts as “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” He claimed Native Americans “selfishly” would not share their land with white settlers. For good measure, he called gays “perverted” and referred to them by an offensive slang term I won’t repeat.

Moreover, Orange County is a different place than it was when Wayne was honored with an airport naming shortly after his death in 1979. At the time of the 1980 Census, almost four out of five Orange County residents were white. Now, it’s a majority-minority county that’s one-third Latino and almost 20 percent Asian. Once so solidly conservative that there were more than three dozen chapters of the John Birch Society located within its boundaries (Wayne was a member), there are now more registered Democrats than Republicans. A majority of Orange County voters supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, not Donald Trump.

But nothing is simple in the United States, not in 2020. Orange County still has very few black residents, with some saying they simply are not made to feel welcome. It remains deeply conservative in spots, so much so that last month, the county’s chief health officer, Nichole Quick, quit her position after receiving death threats for requiring county residents to wear protective masks while in public. Local politics remains heavily Republican: The Orange County Board of Supervisors, which is the body that could rename the airport, has only one Democratic member.

And Wayne’s characters still play to the conservative crowd. They represented a confident frontiersman’s United States — one where men were men and no one worried about the sensitivities or needs of anyone else. That Wayne was simply an actor who was so good at playing strong warrior men that he became an American hero despite the fact he avoided military service during World War II barely registers, much the way many don’t acknowledge that Trump was serially bankrupt, and only played a successful businessman in the tabloid press and on television.

In fact, Wayne’s daughter endorsed Trump for president in 2016, saying, “We need someone like Mr. Trump with leadership qualities, somebody with courage, someone that’s strong like John Wayne.” No surprise, earlier this week, Trump returned the favor by taking to Twitter to say he believed removing Wayne’s name from the airport was an idea of “incredible stupidity.” Orange County Republicans are jumping into the fray, saying they don’t believe the name should be changed.

But no one is proposing canceling films such as “True Grit,” or retroactively rescinding the Oscar Wayne received for his role in it. They are simply saying we don’t need to honor the actor by keeping his name on an international airport that handles, in normal times, slightly under a million passengers a month. It’s wrong, and it sends out a message of intolerance and exclusion. In 2020, John Wayne doesn’t make the cut.

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (The Washington Post)

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