Most of the people who care about John Wayne Airport at all are either residents of Orange County, California, or parsimonious travelers looking for deals that can make it cheaper than flying into LAX. That, regrettably, is about to change.
A Los Angeles Times piece from last week has urged the community to take the actor’s name off of the airport because of comments Wayne made in a 1971 interview with Playboy magazine.
Let’s be clear about the remarks Wayne made: They’re highly inappropriate in 2019. They weren’t even appropriate in 1971. They sound like what someone talking extremely coarsely about race and homosexuality a half-century ago would have said. Which is exactly what they are: Someone talking extremely coarsely about race and homosexuality to a porno mag nearly a half-century ago.
Take this comment about black civic involvement, which — like everything else Wayne said — hasn’t aged well:
“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so,” Wayne said. “But 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.”
Or on so-called “New Hollywood” films he considered “perverted”: “Oh, ‘Easy Rider,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy’ — that kind of thing. Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ a story about two f**s, qualifies?”
Or on 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.”
To be fair, Wayne was an active and identifiable conservative, so it’s not like we can say his remarks were coming from a wholly apolitical individual. However, this is still an actor talking nearly 50 years ago during a much different time from our own. And that, to the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik, is the point — he says that since Southern California, in particular Orange County, is becoming more liberal, it’s time to expunge Wayne’s legacy.
“This wouldn’t be the first time that the airport’s name has been the subject of debate. Orange County Supervisors pondered the issue in 2008, when local tourism officials expressed concern that the name failed to convey exactly where the airport is located. There may have been other occasions since 1979, when the supervisors christened the airport at the urging of Supervisor Thomas F. Riley,” Hiltzik wrote.
“Riley was an ex-Marine, but his rationale is lost in the mists of time. It may have had something to do with Wayne’s status as a rock-ribbed Republican conservative, which was Orange County’s self-image in that period.
“But that Orange County no longer exists. That should be evident from the results of November’s election, in which voters turfed out the county’s last remaining GOP members of Congress — some of whom had embraced Donald Trump in a fruitless effort to save their careers — and elected an all-Democratic congressional delegation. Orange County today is such an economically and ethnically diverse community that it’s hard to justify asking any member of that community to board planes at an airport named after an outspoken racist and homophobe, with his strutting statue occupying a central niche in front of the concourse.”
Writing for the Washington Examiner, however, Madeline Fry says that “(i)t’s too late to blacklist John Wayne, and it’s too illegal to ban his films, so critics are going after the only emblem they can: John Wayne Airport.”
“The actor’s opinions have been in print for almost 50 years and, contrary to what some may think, they were problematic back then, too. Removing his name from Orange County’s airport now only validates what many Americans are coming to believe: You can’t say anything anymore, darn it, without being discovered and punished by the mob,” she writes.
And that’s certainly one of the takeaways here: That taking Wayne’s name off the airport validates those who would say this is all about political correctness and about Donald Trump. That’s because it is.
Perhaps it’s worth noting, too, that the PC police only seem to get themselves worked up about the imprecations of individuals who happen to be conservative.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considering the prospects of a political run by the quarter-Jewish wife of then-Tennessee Sen. Cordell Hull, infamously told another politician, “You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins, but a lot of these people do not know whether there is Jewish blood in their veins or not.”
Nor was this a one-off. During the Second World War, the Roosevelt administration carried out a study about the resettlement of European Jewry after the conflict was over. Roosevelt told Winston Churchill the aim of the plan was “essentially is to spread the Jews thin all over the world” as opposed to letting them agglomerate themselves in one place.
John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, was fond of calling the gay African-American literary figure James Baldwin “Martin Luther Queen.”
In America’s largest city, FDR and JFK adorn the names of many institutions, not the least of which are a major highway and the primary international airport.
No, what they said wasn’t quite as problematic (or as late) as what Wayne said. However, these were men who got things named after them because of their political careers.
Wayne’s image as a conservative in conservative-ish Orange County, California, may have had something to do with naming the airport after him, but it probably had just as much to do with the fact that he was one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world.
That doesn’t make one interview he gave half a century ago all right, nor does it validate the comments. But it’s important to understand that they came in a different era from a man who didn’t live to see the changes of the past 50 years, doesn’t have the chance to defend himself and wasn’t given the honor because of his views on minorities.
“Don’t, like Wayne, become a reactionary,” Fry said in concluding her piece.
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