In the summer of 2015 — which may seem a lifetime ago to you, but oddly doesn’t to me — I was bumbling my way through time and space, when a small cabal of co-conspirators used a fake, state-funded presidential search to jam a former senior business executive into the president’s office at the University of Iowa, my alma mater. A little over a year later, in their finite wisdom, the citizens of the United States elected an infamous serial entrepreneur as president of the entire country, albeit as a result of a free and fair election. In both instances the pro-business community in America championed these developments as exactly what was needed to break out of the status quo and bring solid business acumen to bear on the problems facing the institutions those men would lead.
I leave it to you to judge the merits of their respective presidencies, and how their business savvy benefited their constituencies. I was recently reminded, however, of that particular historical convergence while watching the movie Stagecoach, which was released in 1939. Notable in its own right as a film, Stagecoach is also the first of a number of collaborations between director John Ford and actor John Wayne, who — though he had dozens of screen credits to his name at the time — appeared in what was one of his first starring roles.
Among the characters in the movie is a banker named Henry Gatewood, who lets loose this diatribe while traveling on the fated stage:
GATEWOOD: I can’t get over the impertinence of that young lieutenant. I’ll make it warm for that shavetail. I’ll report him to Washington. We pay taxes to the government and what do we get? Not even protection from the army. I don’t know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business. Why they’re even talking now about having bank examiners. As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks. Why Boone, I actually have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books. I have a slogan that should be placed on every newspaper in the country. America for Americans. The government must not interfere with business. Reduce taxes. Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year. What this country needs is a businessman for president.
While listening to that speech — convincingly delivered by actor Berton Churchill — it struck me as noteworthy that eighty years ago screenwriter Dudley Nichols had his finger on the same attitude that seemed to appeal to so many in 2015 and 2016, and is clearly still with us today. I know there are no new stories, and the cult of the entrepreneur probably reaches back millennia in human history, but it was still jarring hearing a character that was written the better part of a century earlier issue words which are bandied about today by ostensibly serious thinkers. Relatedly, I would also add that the reason businessman Gatewood is taking the coach is because he is making off with a satchel of money embezzled from his bank.
— Mark Barrett