The Lie of the Great American Hero

This week, Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann stuck at least one of what seems to be an inexhaustible supply of feet in her mouth. On the day she officially announced her run for the Presidency, Bachmann, who spent her childhood in Waterloo, Iowa, told Fox News, ”I want them to know just like John Wayne is from Waterloo Iowa, that’s the spirit I have too. It’s embracing America. It’s sacrificing for America.”

Of course, the media, always ready to shoot the biggest, slowest fish in the barrel, immediately caught on to the fact that it was the serial killer, John Wayne Gacy and not the actor, John Wayne that was from Waterloo. The actor lived in another Iowa town. The media labeled it a ‘gaffe’ and fun was had by all, at least for a day or two.

It turns out that her potential voters really didn’t care about the John Wayne mistake. Her poll numbers are actually up. I can’t say I blame her fans. All in all, her gaffe wasn’t a big deal. It could have been one of those family stories that gets misunderstood, misremembered, passed down and twisted. My family has a couple of those. I would imagine most do.

The problem with her statement wasn’t a Michele Bachmann problem. It was a Republican problem. Let’s deconstruct Bachmann’s statement in another way.

“I want them to know just like John Wayne is from Waterloo Iowa, that’s the spirit I have too. It’s embracing America. It’s sacrificing for America.”

The one question that was never asked of her was “What is this ‘spirit’? Who was John Wayne and why do you admire him?” I can only imagine that her answer, if given, would have included the words “great American”, which is how Republicans generally refer to their idols.

John Wayne was not a hero. He played one in the movies, but he was not a hero. John Wayne was an actor. His studio got him out of serving in the military.

John Wayne was racist:

“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. 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 blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

He was a proponent of McCarthyism, which targeted many of Wayne’s own colleagues in Hollywood. Granted, in later years, he became a known for his support of the US Military, but mostly because, you’ve got it…he played military heroes in the movies. I am not trying to portray John Wayne as a bad person. He was a product of his generation. He was successful and famous, but he was no hero. He was no one who should be emulated, even by people who agree with his very conservative politics.

This sort of idolatry is common in Republican circles. A B-actor who also played movie heroes catapulted himself into becoming a conservative icon by being a mediocre President with a pleasant speaking voice and demeanor. Like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan was not a military hero, although unlike Wayne, he did serve. Like Wayne, Reagan’s young life was as a Democrat, but he left the party because, among other things, the emerging civil rights movement.

“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.” and “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

Again, despite vast policy differences between Ronald Reagan, and me I see no reason to vilify the man. He seemed kind hearted. He seemed genial. Like Wayne, he was simply a man. He was flawed. He was no hero, but he did play one for the Republican Party.

More recently, another big screen hero was elected to a high office in Republican politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Early in his term as California governor, there was talk of amending the Constitution so a naturalized citizen could become President. Schwarzenegger had never served in the US Military. He had never fought a fire. He had never arrested a real criminal. He was simply a man who played a hero in the movies and for Republicans, that was good enough, at least for a while.

When faced with a real American Hero, John Kerry, the Republican Party recoiled. Kerry is a Democrat. It is expected that he would be attacked on his policy positions. But no, Kerry was attacked as a war hero, the very thing that Republicans claim to respect more than anything.

Why was the real war hero reviled while the fake ones were revered? Well, to start, of course, Kerry is a Democrat. He also came out of the war and testified to Congress that it was time to get out. But it’s more than that. Kerry isn’t handsome, at least not in the Ronald Reagan sense. He isn’t charismatic. Kerry doesn’t look or sound like an American Hero should, and when it comes down to it, that’s all that matters.

Republican idolatry doesn’t end with the American Hero mythology. Republicans love symbolism. The American Flag is more important than the people over whom it flies. The word ‘freedom’ has more meaning than actual freedom. They love ‘Mama Grizzlies’ and ‘Mavericks.’ They love the symbolism of guns.

Republicans might argue that Barack Obama is a symbolic President, that he would not have been elected had he not been an articulate, handsome, charismatic black man. There might be a grain of truth to that, but only a grain. If a President could be elected for simply being African American, handsome, charismatic and articulate, we would have had a President Jesse Jackson. Many Democrats love Barack Obama. He is admired, but nearly all of us at one time or another have experienced frustration during his two and a half years in office. Unless a lot of meaningful legislation passes, it’s doubtful that after 2016, Democrats will be carving a place for him on Mt. Rushmore or designing new dollar bills. This is not to say that he’s not doing a good job and arguably even a great job, given the disaster he was handed and the obstacles called Congress. The contrast is that Democrats are able to recognize the difference between a man and a symbol.

That is why Mitt Romney will have a hard time winning the Republican nomination. He is symbolic of nothing. Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and the rest of the male Republican lineup, are not symbols of American Heroes. They don’t swagger. They don’t wear cowboy hats. That is why the Republican base loves Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. They have the swagger. They have the good looks. It doesn’t matter that they are ignorant to their own history. It doesn’t matter that they have little grasp of the Constitution they are vowing to protect. All that matters is that they play the part, and they do that very well.

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