Reagan, The Great Gatsby and American promise

Published 12:33 pm Saturday, October 24, 2015

by John Railey

There’s a great TV ad that a pro-immigration group played recently, one in which President Reagan, in his farewell speech in 1989, talks about the way he long envisioned America:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.

I’ve loved Reagan’s words on that each time I’ve seen the ad, thinking how much it reminds me of the romantic view of our land and individual destiny that F. Scott Fitzgerald captured so well in his iconic novel of 1925, “The Great Gatsby.” I thought about it all the other night as I watched on TV, for maybe the 50th time, the latest movie remake of Fitzgerald’s novel. After years of saying the Robert Redford version of 1974 was the best, I finally have to admit that this new version is better at capturing the clash of cynicism and innocence that Fitzgerald rendered.

But back to politics, for a moment.

The National Immigration Action Forum produced the ad that uses Reagan, cutting from footage of him giving that farewell speech to shots of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and other candidates denouncing undocumented immigrants and calling for an end to birthright citizenship.

I don’t agree with much of what President Reagan espoused, especially as someone who came of age in the 1980s when he ruled. I did like his commitment to reasonable immigration reform. That reform should have been the start of other efforts.

And the older I get, the more I love that old man’s unyielding and sincere belief in the promise of America, the promise beating within the heart of each and every American to transcend backgrounds and ascend in a wild and free way that The Old Country never allowed. We could use more of that now.

Other writers have made the Gatsby/Reagan connection. It’s anybody’s guess what Fitzgerald would have thought of Reagan’s politics.

But I’ll submit that Fitzgerald would have given a nod of grudging admiration to Reagan’s mastery of narrative, and to his ability to harness that narrative for support from many Americans.

And I suspect that Reagan just might have learned from Gatsby.

The more I read about Reagan, the more I realize that this B-movie actor wasn’t the writer-ly wasteland many have long proclaimed he was. He kept a detailed diary that is at times eloquent.

And Reagan knew well the power of romantic narrative. He stayed in Hollywood while The Greatest Generation fought it out for us in World War II, but as a young man, he served as a lifeguard on the Rock River in Dixon, Illinois. Biographers credit him with saving lives.

Fitzgerald’s Gatsby gets his start by saving the life of a millionaire, who would become his mentor, in a storm on the water.

Reagan knew well the power narrative held in connecting with Americans. He knew well the importance of connecting with the people, of looking straight past the cameras and into their very hearts. Charisma, which he had in spades, is a gift. Good leaders follow that charisma with a vision that the majority will buy. The Democrat Barack Obama, in his run-up to the presidency in 2008, basically acknowledged Reagan’s mastery of selling the vision.

We are, after all, a country that is led by charisma. Charisma engenders morale, and we all want to feel good about ourselves. We shirk change until we’re moved.

Which brings me back to the Gatsby film remake. Lana Del Rey belts out the film’s signature song, of which these lines are the bedrock:

Will you still love me

When I’m no longer young and beautiful?

Will you still love me

When I got nothing but my aching soul?

The lines transfer easily from the question posed by Gatsby’s unrequited lover to our country’s unrequited ache to be loved by the world. Toward the end of his farewell speech, Reagan put it like this:

And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

We are still young.

JOHN RAILEY is a Courtland native and is the editorial page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column first appeared.