Duke's fans in Iowa still see things in black and white

Fri, Dec 9, 2011, 00:00

WHERE IS John Wayne now that the Republican party needs him? The movie actor died in 1979, but among Iowa conservatives he’s remembered like the Messiah.

When Newt Gingrich, now the frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, visited the four-room wooden house where Wayne was born this autumn, he told the museum’s director, Brian Downes, that as a child he practised walking like the Duke.

“Any candidate wants that John Wayne association,” Downes says.

Texas governor Rick Perry consciously imitates Wayne. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann compared herself to him when she announced her candidacy last June, saying: “That’s the kind of spirit I have too.”

In recent months, five Republican candidates have visited Winterset, a town of 4,500 souls 40km southwest of Des Moines, Iowa’s largest city. Like Iowa itself, Winterset sometimes votes Democrat, sometimes Republican.

These days, with Barack Obama’s candidacy decided, the Democrats seem as dormant as the grey-brown stubble of the frozen cornfields along the highway. Iowa’s Republican caucuses on January 3rd are the biggest event on the nation’s horizon, because they’ll send the first strong signal as to who will challenge Obama.

John Wayne campaigned for Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater and Reagan. So which of the seven candidates would he endorse, were he alive today? Downes tells me to call Aissa Wayne, an attorney in California and John Wayne’s daughter.

“He was a true conservative,” Aissa Wayne says of her father. “He realised that democracy works better when you lift regulations and let people fend for themselves . . . I think he would probably pick Newt Gingrich over [the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt] Romney. Just knowing my dad, Gingrich has shown that he’s tough and knowledgeable. He knows his way around Washington and he knows how to get things done. I think my dad would have connected better with Newt.”

Gingrich, like John Wayne before him, has married three times, a problem for some socially conservative Republicans. Neither the Duke nor the former House speaker served in the military, a fact they both regretted.

Some of Wayne’s best roles were as second World War combatants, including the tough Marine Corps sergeant in Sands of Iwo Jimaand an ageing naval officer in In Harm’s Way.When Wayne starred in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director John Ford taunted him with questions about how much money he made while his fellow actors were risking their lives in the war.

Aissa Wayne says her father “felt cheated” that the movie studios prevented him joining the armed forces. “The military movies at least satisfied some of his wish to support America, to do his part to be patriotic,” she says.

Like the former vice president Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich has been labelled a “chickenhawk” for avoiding the Vietnam War and later promoting war in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over,” Gingrich said in 1985.

Aissa Wayne says her father also “would have loved Michele Bachmann for her strength and courage and conviction. Of course, they’re both from Iowa.”

When Bachmann launched her own candidacy in her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa, she mistakenly said the actor was from there, confusing him with the serial killer John Wayne Gacy and in the process strengthening her own reputation for carelessness with facts.

Despite Gingrich’s sudden surge in the polls, many still waver. Nearly two-thirds of Iowan Republicans tell pollsters they might yet change their minds. “Nobody can fill John Wayne’s boots,” sighs Downes. “He’s the biggest movie star that ever was. Nobody sold more tickets or lasted longer.”

“It would be great if my dad could come back and run,” says Aissa Wayne. “He could follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps and turn the country around.”

For some conservatives, the adoration of John Wayne borders on the religious. The day after I visited Winterset, I was surprised to see pictures of John Wayne, rather than Jesus Christ, in the office of Pastor James Snow at the Heritage Assembly church in Des Moines.

“I told my parishioners I wanted a Man Church, not a Sissy Church,” Snow explained. “Not enough men attend church, because it’s become so feminised.”

Toughness; strength; manliness; not sissies. Someone who can beat Obama. That is what Republicans thirst for. And simple solutions.

Downes quotes John Wayne: “They say things are not black and white. I say, ‘Why the hell not?’”

But isn’t it dangerous for a country to confuse Hollywood movies with the real world, actors with statesman? I ask Downes as he shows me the museum. “Ronald Reagan said: ‘I don’t know how you could do this (president’s) job without being an actor’,” he replies.

When I ask about the economy, the real world intrudes on our conversation. “Recession is just a fancy word for depression,” says Carolyn Farr, one of two grey-haired ladies who run the shop adjacent to the birthplace. “Are people really hungry? I don’t know. . .” says Downes.

“One out of six American children lives in poverty,” interjects Vicki Miner, the other grey-haired lady, citing government statistics. Downes says relief organisations take care of them. “We don’t have people riding freight trains or selling apples on street corners.”

Miner was born in 1934, and remembers the last years of the Great Depression. “We lived beside the railroad tracks. My father gave shoes and socks to a bare-footed hobo. Our house was marked then. The next time there were three men, and we fed them . . .”

At the Northside Cafe, the gathering place where presidential candidates meet supporters, I find four elderly natives of Winterset. Ethelle Osborn (81) is a strong-willed woman who kept her maiden name after marriage long before it became fashionable.

With the same midwestern accent that Wayne took to Hollywood, Osborn speaks proudly of her town, with its John Wayne Drive, flag-decked shopfronts and Christmas garlands. “Winterset is absolutely awesome,” she says. “We have a movie theatre with a marquee. They don’t even have one in Des Moines.”

Republicans expect the national mood of uncertainty and dissatisfaction to prompt a high turnout on January 3rd. Will Osborn vote in the caucuses? “You betcha. Ruth over there is 102, and I doubt if she’s missed one,” says the former school teacher. Osborn is leaning towards Gingrich, because she thinks “he would be able to handle the job”.

She describes him and three other candidates as having “a good Christian background”. She’s Presbyterian, and that’s important to her. She hasn’t mentioned Romney. Is that because he’s Mormon? She purses her lips, pauses diplomatically. “I’d have to think about that.”

I venture a question about the president. “Obama humbug!” shouts David Lillard, the “baby” of the lot, who wears a Santa hat to celebrate his 73rd birthday. Osborn’s husband, Keith Tucker, 90, a retired insurance manager, is the most vehement.

“Obama, he’s for the Muslims!” he says. “He should be run out of town on a rail! He better get out because he’s a crook. He spent more money than all the presidents put together.”

In the old days, American towns punished a man by forcing him to straddle a fence rail, which was paraded through the streets on the shoulders of townsmen. It was mob justice, and the victim was sometimes tarred and feathered before being dumped by the roadside at city limits.