Brow Beat

Joe Biden Just Called a Woman at One of His Events a “Lying, Dog-Faced Pony Soldier.” What?

Joe Biden holding a microphone, mid-word, in front of a Biden campaign sign.
Joe Biden, speaking in Hampton. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At a campaign event in Hampton, New Hampshire, on Sunday, presidential candidate Joe Biden jokingly referred to a young woman who asked him a question as a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier,” according to the Washington Post. There’s video of the incident, which began when 21-year-old student Madison Moore asked Biden to explain his poor showing in the Iowa caucuses:

Later, Biden’s spokespeople said the line was taken from a scene in a John Wayne movie in which a Native American chief refers to Wayne as a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier.” Biden has used the phrase, and attributed it to a John Wayne movie, in the past; at a 2018 campaign event for Heidi Heitkamp, Biden said the following about Heitkamp’s opponent Kevin Cramer:

As my brother who loves to use lines from movies, from John Wayne movies, there’s a line in a movie, a John Wayne movie where an Indian chief turns to John Wayne and says, “This is a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.”

There’s video of that, too:

By far the most common question raised by Biden’s use of the phrase in New Hampshire has been “What the hell is Joe Biden thinking calling a young woman ‘dog-faced’?” But running a close second is “Is there really a movie in which someone calls John Wayne a ‘lying, dog-faced pony soldier’?” The answer is a resounding “maybe.” Wayne appeared in 180 movies over 50 years, and who knows what they called him in all of them? But it seems at least as likely that Biden is thinking of a different film: Pony Soldier, a 1952 Western from director Joseph M. Newman starring Tyrone Power as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Pony Soldier,” in the context of the film, is a Native American nickname for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and although no one calls Power a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier,” a chief does say, “The pony soldier speaks with a tongue of the snake that rattles,” which isn’t far off:

Is that the scene—filtered through Joe Biden’s memory of his brother’s memory of an old Western—that inspired Joe Biden to call a young woman at one of his events a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” nearly 70 years later? We may never know, but one thing is certain: For Democrats who want to nominate a presidential candidate with a vast library of half-remembered old Westerns floating around in their brains, there’s only one choice.

Update, Feb. 10, 2020, 3 a.m.: Twitter users and Slate commenter “Lee Bertram” point to a source for the “dog-faced” part of Biden’s “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” line, this time in an actual John Wayne movie, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. There are no Native American chiefs calling John Wayne a liar or a pony soldier, but over the final shot of cavalry, the narrator uses the phrase “dog-faced soldiers”:

So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the 50-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of the nation. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark, they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue, and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.

Here’s that final shot:

So now we have one movie in which a Native American chief calls Tyrone Power a “pony soldier” while accusing him of lying, and another movie in which John Wayne is part of a group of “dog-faced soldiers.” Add to that the ubiquity of John Wayne imitations and we have a plausible explanation for the way the phrase “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” might have become part of Joe Biden and his brother’s private lexicon. Whether it was a great idea to use the phrase at a campaign event, of course, is another question entirely.