Monday, January 10, 2005

High Ideals, So-Called

Over the holidays, the wife and I watched It's A Wonderful Life, just like we do every year. And we loved it, just like we do every year. If this proves we're hopelessly sentimental fools, as it probably does, then so be it.

But this year, in the gray dawn of Bush's second term, I realized the obvious truth: Mr. Potter is a Republican. The scheming, thieving villain typifies much of the whole Republican philosophy: no welfare, make it on your own, every man for himself, the ends justify the means, etc.

So I don't know which way it goes - whether I love this story of the generous good guy winning out over the greedy bad guy because of my political beliefs, or whether I have those beliefs because of stories like this. But there it is.

Here's the scene we were watching when I realized this. It's right after the death of George Bailey's father, Peter. The board members of the Bailey Building And Loan are discussing what happens next. Potter has just suggested that the institution be dissolved entirely.

POTTER - Peter Bailey was not a business man. That's what killed him. Oh, I don't mean any disrespect to him, God rest his soul. He was a man of high ideals, so-called, but ideals without common sense can ruin this town. (picking up papers from table) Now, you take this loan here to Ernie Bishop... You know, that fellow that sits around all day on his "brains" in his taxi. You know... I happen to know the bank turned down this loan, but he comes here and we're building him a house worth five thousand dollars. Why?

George is at the door of the office, holding his coat and papers, ready to leave.

GEORGE - Well, I handled that, Mr. Potter. You have all the papers there. His salary, insurance. I can personally vouch for his character.

POTTER (sarcastically) - A friend of yours?

GEORGE - Yes, sir.

POTTER - You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas. Now, I say...

George puts down his coat and comes around to the table, incensed by what Potter is saying about his father.

GEORGE - Just a minute –– just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know.

But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was... Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me.

But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that? Why... here, you're all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? You... you said... What'd you say just a minute ago?... They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken-down that they... Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars?

Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so! People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!


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