What John Ford Knew About American Politics
A good weekend has beautiful weather, politics and baseball in it. A superb one adds a John Ford Western.
Ford may be the finest truly American filmmaker of all time, and although his most famous works are probably “The Quiet Man,” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, he made a remarkable series of magnificent Westerns, including “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” “Stage Coach”, and “My Darling Clementine.” Ford’s Westerns are notable for their beautiful cinematography and location shooting in Monument Valley, their strong and nuanced characters, and a decidedly American perspective on right and wrong. Ford’s characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. Watch John Wayne in ‘The Searchers” as the distilled essence of revenge-driven racism and anger, or Henry Fonda as the ambitious martinet Colonel Thursday in “Fort Apache”, or even Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” and you can see that virtue, heroism, and high ideals often don’t come wrapped together in perfect packages.
Ford understands the American psyche. He gets what makes us tick. He does something only the smartest politician does; he trusts our compass to find our way through moral ambiguity and make our own judgments.
We had elections this last week, and the results show once again just how smart and discriminating we can be, and how insightful John Ford was. Thousands of state and local races were decided, and among them, a very few took on a more national significance. In Virginia, a disappointed-with-Obama electorate handed Republicans effective control of the State Senate, which means they now are completely in charge. In Mississippi, the Republicans took control of both houses of their Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, but a controversial ballot measure that would have defined life as beginning at the moment of conception, was surprisingly and soundly defeated. In Arizona, Russell Pearce, the combative Republican President of the State Senate and author of the most restrictive anti-immigration legislation in the country, was recalled and replaced by Jerry Lewis, a kindler and gentler Conservative Republican. In Ohio, a non-binding resolution blocking the individual mandate of Obamacare won by a large margin. But, at the same time, Ohio voters rolled back a draconian attempt by Governor Kasich and the Republican controlled state legislature to effectively destroy public service unions. And in Maine, the people overwhelming restored a four-decade tradition of late registration voting. The Republican governor and legislature had changed that, hoping to reduce Democratic turnout.
What John Ford knew was that we care not only about virtue of the ends we seek, but the manner in which we seek them. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, Jimmy Stewart’s good and productive life was built on a pair of lies, and he’s left to acknowledge them as an old man. In “Fort Apache”, Henry Fonda realizes, too late, that the Indian Chief he tried to trick has outsmarted him. His command is destroyed, and he rejoins them in a final act of suicidal honor.
In “The Searchers”, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards draws back from a climatic act of murder, but he’s not ready to return the world of the living. He walks away from home as the door literally closes on him.
It’s sometimes said that America is a “center-right”. We aren’t center-right. What we are is centered; centered on a core concept of justice, centered on a sense of fair play. Centered on John Ford’s vision of America. We don’t like big and abrupt changes, and so bellwether states like Ohio can show their disapproval of Obamacare. We know that human beings are imperfect, but we resent too much interference in our personal lives, and so the very socially conservative and pro-life Mississippi voter can decisively vote down a proposal that seems to go too far. We have a healthy suspicion of authority, and don’t approve when it’s abused to benefit one group over another (Ohio and Maine). We play hard and rough at times, but we do care about justice. Finally, and decisively, we don’t like mean, and so Russell Pearce, who embodied that “virtue”, was shown the door.
Once again, we have managed to be better than those who aspire to lead us. I find that encouraging.