Columnist wonders: Is it time to cancel ... The Duke?

Will cancel culture take down one of America’s best-known movie icons? Perhaps, but the issue might be as complex as the man himself, John Wayne. Writing in the Orange County Register over the weekend, columnist David Whiting argued that the local airport needs a new name in light of Wayne’s expressions of support for white supremacy. Should a major airport carry Wayne’s name in light of his views?

[W]hen it comes to plastering someone’s name on an international airport that sees nearly 1 million passengers a month, there must be careful, considered and continued thought.

What was OK in 1978 when supervisors named JWA is not necessarily OK in today’s world — and perhaps it never should have been acceptable.

When I drive by or fly out of John Wayne Airport, a place most of us simply refer to as “John Wayne,” I don’t always think about the actor and his dark statements. But when I do, I am troubled.

For many people it’s worse. Being forced to buy and carry around an airline ticket that unavoidably honors someone’s racism is an insult.

Well, how bad was it? Um … pretty bad, actually, and not really all that secret. Whiting quotes a 1971 Playboy interview, which were usually published as verbatim transcripts, in which Wayne explored his views on race relations. The Washington Post first reported on this in February of this year from excerpts published by a Hollywood screenwriter. Unfortunately, this quote is accurate and in context with the rest of the interview:

In the 1971 interview, Wayne railed against “perverted films,” giving the interviewer, Richard Warren Lewis, two examples when asked: “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy.”

The actor described the characters in the latter film with a homophobic slur, then went on to extol the virtues of sexual intercourse between men and women.

“I believe in white supremacy,” he said, and spoke harshly about African Americans, saying, “We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks.”

“I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people,” he said.

Needless to say, anyone expressing these thoughts today would get cancelled very quickly, even perhaps without a cancel-culture mentality, and rightly so. There’s more too, which makes it clear that this was no rhetorical misstep or misunderstanding. The remarks also surfaced briefly in 2016 when Wayne’s daughter Aissa endorsed Donald Trump, although there doesn’t appear to have been any push to strip his name from the airport at that time.

But this didn’t take place today; it took place nearly 50 years ago involving a man from a very different era. As his family points out, Wayne lived his life without actively harming others even if he did hold views that were outdated even at that time. Whiting also notes that Wayne’s wives all spoke Spanish, which means that his bark was probably much worse than his bite. Wayne may have participated in politics, but he’s remembered for his contributions to the film industry and the region.

Wayne wasn’t a saint, but that’s not usually the bar for having facilities named after someone. There probably isn’t much call for Robert Byrd’s name to be stripped off of dozens if not hundreds of public facilities in West Virginia despite his membership in the Klan. Nor should there be, since the decision to put his name on those buildings had little to do with that phase of his life, but rather his public service (and his access to pork, but that’s another issue altogether). If we removed all the names off all the facilities of people who fell short of perfection or our evolving ideals, no one’s name would last long — not even newspaper columnists’.

At the National Review, Kyle Smith concurs, and suggests that the idea infantilizes everyone else:

On the other hand, our nation’s capital is named after a guy who owned slaves, which is worse than saying any of these things in 1971. Many if not most of our heroes had feet of clay. Once we start down the road of renaming things, ripping down statues, destroying stained-glass windows, and the like, we’re going to find it hard to declare when enough is enough. I think we’re mature enough to walk through John Wayne Airport without mistaking it for a monument to white supremacy.

It’s worth noting, though, that the decision to name the airport after Wayne in 1979 was controversial, but for an entirely different reason. Wayne had nothing to do with the airport or with aviation, and people in the area wanted the airport named for the man who created it in the first place, aviation pioneer Eddie Martin. They left Martin’s name on the terminal in use at the time, but that later got demolished for the Thomas F. Riley terminal in use now, named after a county supervisor. The county wanted to honor Wayne, a longtime resident, but many suspected they also wanted to have a readily marketable name for the airport, too.

That makes this controversy a bit ironic, but still, circling back around to this forty years later says more about Whiting and cancel culture than it does about Wayne or the airport. Wayne had his faults, as we all do and did, but the recognition he receives at the airport is for a lifetime of legitimately iconic work in the entertainment industry, not to suggest that he was a saint. Leave the airport alone, leave the Wayne family alone, and work on improving the present in Orange County. The past can speak for itself.