Stephen Hunter's "Leading Men" piece in Sunday's Washington Post is no exception. Given, it was in the Style and Arts section, but Hunter's comparison of Obama and McCain to movie stars past and present was a bit over-the-top and, I would argue, flat-out wrong on one important point. You can read the article here, but the general gist of his piece is that John McCain's image parallels that of the the cinematic "tough guys" of the past - John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Clint Eastwood, while Barack Obama is similar to some of the young rebels of the 1970s and 80s such as Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro.
Fine, that's all well and good. I'm sure the editors of the Style and Arts section loved it. What bothered me was a constant motif that Hunter continued to return to throughout the article, inspired by a comment from John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards from the 1956 film The Searchers. Here's how Hunter begins the article:
Wonderful moment in John Ford's "The Searchers," from way back in 1956: John Wayne, as the surly, violent Ethan Edwards, signals to his young compadre that it's time to move on in their pursuit of Scar, the Comanche chief who's murdered their family and kidnapped the youngest daughter, Debbie.
"Let's go, blankethead," he scowls to the young Martin Pawley.
I love the Duke's pronunciation of the word "blankethead"; it radiates contempt for the young and the untested. Ethan is using the blast of scorn to tell the young man not only to get going to his horse but to get going in growing up, to acquire sand, grit, salt and all the other granular metaphors for old-guy toughness and savvy. Blankethead: It's a three-syllable telegram on the theme of the fecklessness of youth, and nobody but Wayne could turn it into poetry.
Sorry Mr. Hunter, but you are waaaay off the mark. A little more insight into the movie would reveal that Ethan Edwards is a bitter racist who can barely hide his contempt for Native Americans. The Martin Pauley character is Ethan's adopted nephew who happens to be part Cherokee, part Welsh and English. "A fellow could mistake you for a half-breed" Ethan says to Pauley during dinner. How Hunter interpreted the "blankethead" comment to be a "three syllable telegram on theme of the fecklessness of youth" is beyond me.
While I couldn't find any information on the origin of the term, it is fairly clear that it is being used in this context as a flat-out racist insult. It must have been many years since Hunter saw the film if he believes Wayne's comment "radiates contempt for the young and untested." Further on in the article, Hunter writes, "It's not hard to see Sen. McCain calling the young, fresh-faced Sen. Barack Obama a "blankethead" just as it's easy to imagine Obama interrupting his opponent in a debate with a hectoring, "Hey, old guy" " (a reference Hunter made earlier about a Will Smith quote from Men in Black). This is like pouring salt in the wounds of the reader - Hunter just doesn't get it. And if I were McCain, I would be heated for being compared to such a character.
It's still many more days until McCain and Obama accept the nominations from their parties, and even more until Election Day. Let's only hope that the inevitable pop-culture comparisons and human interest stories are kept in check. They do have a role to play for sure, but it does a general disservice to the public if the media stretches the analogies too far.
On another note, The Searchers is one of John Ford's best films and arguably John Wayne's finest performance. The two disc 50th Anniversary edition DVD is worth checking out and is loaded with great bonus features and a new transfer. You can find it on Amazon here. Trust me, it's a better use of your time than reading Hunter's article.