Life Imitates Art

By Jeffrey Page

Meet the imperious Mr. Henry Gatewood, manager of the Cattlemen’s and Miners’ Bank branch in Tonto, a dusty outpost in southeastern Arizona. Listen to the words of Gatewood and those of some 21st century politicians and bankers and you see they are his direct descendants.

It is several years after the Civil War, and the better ladies of Tonto are running a hooker and a drunken doctor out on the next stagecoach east. The other passengers include an outlaw, the sheriff, a gambler, a whiskey salesman, the wife of a wounded cavalry officer, and Gatewood, played Berton Churchill.

This is the set-up for “Stagecoach,” the 1939 movie by John Ford, a terrific show all around, but with one scene that deserves a special look.

Gatewood sits between the two women on the stagecoach and speak s a deliciously ironic – not to mention prescient – soliloquy. At this point, we know Gatewood’s felonious secret; the passengers do not.

“I don’t know what the government is coming to,” he blusters. “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, at home I actually had a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books.

“I have a slogan that should be emblazoned on every newspaper in this country: ‘America for the Americans.’ The government must not interfere with business. Reduce taxes. Our national debt is something shocking, over $1 billion a year. What this country needs is a businessman for president,” he says. In another 100 years or so, it would be the regulation-hating Ronald Reagan declaring in his first inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Reagan’s groupies still quote that ignorant line. They forget, like Henry Gatewood forgot, that while an unregulated business class may rail against government oversight, working people and the middle class need such protection to survive.

Gatewood would have the passengers believe he’s a great American. Except that inside the little valise Gatewood holds close to his chest is the $50,000 he has just stolen from his bank.

Gatewood was a man before his time, and parsing his words is instructive.

–Like today’s bankers, Gatewood wants protection from the government, not regulation. But it’s the rabble of Tonto who stand to lose that uninsured $50,000.

–“As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks,” he harrumphs. The last few years have shown that, indeed, lots of bankers don’t know the first thing about running a bank.

–Gatewood complains about popinjay officials demanding to inspect his books. In fact, a lot of misery could have been avoided in America over the last few years if scores more regulators had been on the job.

–Then, Gatewood’s final words. First his nativist call for “America for the Americans.” Then his demand that government get the hell out of the way of business. And then the inevitable “Reduce taxes.”

And at last, he says the country needs a businessman for president – someone to protect all the Henry Gatewoods who take the money and run.

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