The Great Gatsby Re-Incarnated a la Don Draper and Barack Obama

‘Tis the season for Gatsby… in more ways than one. Release of the Baz Luhrmann movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the iconic Gatsby has spurred me—and apparently multitudes of others—to re-read the famed F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Gatsby fever is running so high that the book soared to the number one ranking in print and number three on Kindle on Amazon. Sara Nelson, editorial director of books and Kindle at Amazon, told the New York Daily News that when comparing this April to a year before, sales of the print version quadrupled, and sales of the Kindle version were ten times what they’d been.

It’s no wonder. The movie (whose box office receipts even beat out those of Iron Man 3 one night) prompted this renewed interest in The Great Gatsby, but Jay Gatsby—or, more accurately, people’s reactions to him—is relevant to every age, not just the Jazz Age.

It’s human nature to Gatsby-ize others, whether it’s for the pleasures of unsatisfied curiosity or slander or just plain sport. And, as Fitzgerald observed, it’s definitely American nature to do so.

What makes Jay Gatsby (nee James Gatz) so endlessly alluring to the American psyche is that he’s a man of mystery that people project their fantasies and fears onto. He’s an enigmatic man who invents an idea of himself and becomes that invention, just as America itself did.

Here’s a scene (from the book, that is) that illustrates this best. When narrator Nick Carraway attends his first in a stream of parties at Gatsby’s mansion, he recalls this revealing conversation, starting with a woman’s reaction to Gatsby buying her friend, Lucille, an evening gown after she’d torn hers at one of his parties:

“’He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.’

‘Who doesn’t?’ I inquired.

‘Gatsby. Somebody told me –-‘

The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.

‘Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.’

A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.

‘I don’t think it’s so much that,’ argued Lucille skeptically; ‘it’s more that he was a German spy during the war.’

One of the men nodded in confirmation.

‘I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany,’ he assured us positively.

‘Oh, no,’ said the first girl, ‘it couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war.’ As our credulity switched back to her she leaned forward with enthusiasm. ‘You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him. I’ll bet he killed a man.’

She narrowed her eyes and shivered. Lucille shivered. We all turned and looked around for Gatsby. It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.”

So there we have it: Gatsby, the dreamer, the idealist, the transplant from the Midwest who comes to the fabled East to make his fortune and pursue his dream, the subject of speculation and innuendo.

Sounds an awful lot like Mad Men’s Don Draper, doesn’t it? Like Gatsby, he adopts a different name from his given one (Dick Whitman), hails from the Midwest but moved to the East to begin life anew, and keeps his past largely hidden.

In the third episode of the series, “Marriage of Figaro”, co-worker Harry Crane remarks in frustration, “Draper? Who knows anything about that guy? No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.”

Like Gatsby, Don is unknowable to the other characters in the show (even to his first and second wives) and to the viewing audience—and that’s the way we like it. In fact, it’s when his first wife, Betty, forces his secrets out of him that she decides to leave him. She makes it seem like it’s a case of too little intimacy, too late, but perhaps without his cloak of mystery, Don simply loses his allure.

Six seasons in, with Don’s childhood revealed, his conflicts between his morals and his desires made repeatedly apparent, his flashes of vulnerability always so quickly squashed, that allure is starting to wear thin for the viewing audience too, I believe.

This season’s new plot twist, the merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Price and Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, tries to redress this by placing Don’s new partner, Ted, in the Nick Carraway role of admirer/skeptic. Currently, in Season 7 in the “Man With a Plan” episode, when Don’s childhood revealed when Ted visits his colleague, who has cancer, in the hospital, he expresses his conflicted feelings about Don by saying, “He’s mysterious but I can’t tell if he’s putting it on.” But, as a viewer, knowing all I now know about Don, I’m no longer free to Gatsby-ize him and so I’m having trouble staying interested.

In this grand season of Gatsby, there’s one more figure—this one real, not fictional—whom Americans have Gatsby-ized beyond all recognition: Barack Obama.

Obama himself foresaw the potential for this before he became President. In his second memoir The Audacity of Hope, Obama famously acknowledged, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

I wonder if he knew just how outlandish and sick some of those projections would become. As Stephen Colbert hilariously put it after popping a bottle of bubbly on the 13 May Colbert Report, “Folks…everything I’ve ever said about Obama is true….He’s a secret Muslim, shape-shifting alien from Kenya who’s coming for our guns, and Bo [the Obamas’ dog] is a member of the Illuminati.”

But the projections, as Obama understood, have come from supporters as much as from detractors. How many liberals have bemoaned the limitations of Obama, the cautious and sometimes ineffective executive, as compared with Obama, the inspirational, transformative campaigner? The dreamer rather than the doer?

At a time when people claim to want to know about “the lives of others” (through Twitter, reality TV, memoirs, based-on-true-events movies, etc.), it turns out that, as Fitzgerald cautioned us, we’d really rather know the rumors than the truth, the mystery than the reality, the hero than the human.