It’s commonly accepted that calling voters “lying dog-faced pony soldiers” isn’t an advisable campaign strategy. But that didn’t stop former Vice President and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden from employing this risky strategy at an event yesterday where he was asked about what his dismal showing in Iowa last week means for his chances of success.
Before jumping to any conclusions about what, exactly, Biden was trying to accomplish by yet again dismissing questions about his campaign out of hand, we should remember that this is all part of a shrewd political calculation. You see, Biden was sort of, maybe, kind of badly quoting John Wayne—an actor notable for, uh, embodying and supporting progressive values.
Biden knows exactly what he’s doing, you see, and understands that to appeal to a young woman asking how Iowa will impact his chances at the Democratic nomination, it’s important to rebuke her by conjuring up an insult from a late 1940s or early ‘50s Western.
Determined to uncover where this “lying dog-faced pony soldier” line could have come from, Slate’s Matthew Dessem tried to hunt down the origin of the supposed John Wayne quote. After making the caveat that “Wayne appeared in 180 movies over 50 years” and that Biden may be a fan of some extremely obscure ones, Dessem posits the 1952 film Pony Soldier as a possible source. That movie, apparently, has First Nations characters referring to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as “pony soldiers,” despite never calling them “dog-faced” at the same time. He also points out that another John Wayne movie—1949's She Wore A Yellow Ribbon—concludes with a “shot of cavalry” in which “the narrator uses the phrase ‘dog-faced soldiers.’”
This is echoed in a tweet from @KDbyProxy, who searched a database to find the relevant narration.
So there you have it. Biden is operating on levels that political amateurs simply cannot understand. When we watch him respond to a pretty standard campaign question by accusing a woman of lying about attending a caucus and calling her a “dog-faced pony soldier,” the average person may register this as an inexplicable, unnecessary insult. The most savvy pundits, though, will know that Biden’s displaying a level of pop culture familiarity that makes him relatable to the most important demographic in the nation: Those who watched a lot of John Wayne movies in the immediate post-war period and like to remix quotes from them in their heads.
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