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By Michael F. Duggan
For the past few years, I have posted a version of this essay around this time of year. Having just watched the movie last night, here it is again.
I have always loved the 1947 Frank Capra seasonal classic It’s a Wonderful Life, but have long suspected that it is a sadder story than most people realize (in a similar but more profound sense as Goodbye Mr. Chips). One gets the impression from the early part of the movie that George Bailey could have done anything, but was held back at every opportunity. Last year, after watching it, I tried to get my ideas about the film organized and wrote the following essay.
In spite of its heart-warming ending, the 1947 Christmas mainstay by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, is in some ways a highly ambiguous film and likely a sad story. George Bailey, the film’s protagonist played by Jimmy Stewart (in spite of his real-life Republican leanings), is the kind of person who gave the United States it’s most imaginative set of political programs from 1933 to 1945 that shepherded the country through the Depression and won WWII and consequently its greatest period of prosperity from 1945 until the early 1970s (for a real life sample of this kind or person, see The Making of the New Deal: The Insiders Speak). Bailey wants to do “something big and something important”—to “build things” to “plan modern cities, build skyscrapers 100 stories high… bridges a mile long… airfields…” George Bailey is the big thinker—a “big picture guy”—and his father, Peter Bailey the staunch, sensible, and fundamentally decent localist hero. Both are the kind of people we need now.
In a moment of frank honesty bordering on insensitivity, George tells his father that he does not want to work in the Building and Loan, that he “couldn’t face being cooped up in a shabby little office… counting nickels and dimes.” His father recognizes the restlessness, the boundless talent and quality, the bridled energy, big-thinking, and high-minded ambition of his son. Although wounded, the senior Mr. Bailey agrees with George, saying “You get yourself and education and get out of here,” and dies of a stroke the same night—his strategically-placed photo remains a moral omnipresence for the rest of the movie (along with presidential photos to link events to specific years).
One local crises or turn of events after another stymies all of George’s plans to go abroad and change the world just as they seem to be on the cusp of fruition. Rather than world-changer, he ends up as a local fixer for the good—a better, and more energetic version of a local hero, a status that confirms his “wonderful life” at the film’s exuberantly sentimental ending where a 1945 yuletide flash mob descends on the Bailey house thus saving the situation by returning decades worth of good faith, deeds, and subsequent material wealth and prosperity. But what is it that sets George apart from the rest of the town that comes to depend upon him over the years?
At the age of 12 he saves his brother Harry from drowning (and by historical extension, a U.S. troopship a quarter of a century later), leaving him deaf in one ear. Shortly thereafter, his keen perception prevents Mr. Gower, the pharmacist (distracted by the news of the death of his college student son during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919), from accidentally poisoning another patient. As an adult, George’s theorizing about making plastics from soybeans by converting a local defunct factory adds to the town’s prosperity and makes a less visionary friend (Sam “hee-haw” Wainwright) a fortune, but not one for himself.
Other than saving the Building and Loan from liquidation, George’s primary victory is marrying his beautiful and wholesome sweetheart—”Marty’s kid sister”—Mary (Donna Reed) and raising a family. With a cool head and insight and the help of his wife, they single-handedly stop a run on the Building and Loan in its tracks with their own readily-available honeymoon funds. The goodwill is reciprocated by most of the Savings and Loan’s investors (one notably played by Ellen “Can I have $17.50” Corby, later Grandma Walton).
From there George goes on to help an immigrant family buy their own house and in fact builds an entire subdivision for the town’s earnest and respectable working class, all the while standing up to the local bully: the cartoonishly sinister plutocratic omnipresence and Manachiest counterweight to everything good and decent in town, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Potter is the lingering, unregulated nineteenth-century predatory plutocracy that, in modified form, cooked the economy during 1920s, resulting in the Great Depression. Even Potter comes to recognize George’s quality and unsuccessfully attempts to buy him off.
During the war, George’s bad ear keeps him out of the fighting (unlike the real Jimmy Stewart who flew numerous combat missions in a B-24), and makes himself useful with such patriotic extracurriculars as serving as an air raid warden, and organizing paper, rubber, and scrap drives. And yet he seems to have adapted to his fate of being involuntarily tethered to the small financial institution he inherited from his father, and therefore the role of the town’s protector. He seems more-or-less happily resigned to his fate as a thoroughbred pulling a milk wagon.
Were George Bailey just another guy in Bedford Falls or most towns in the United States, this would indeed be a wonderful life and indeed for most of us it would be. Even with all of his disappointments, his life is a satisfactory reply to the unanswerable Buddhist question, “how good would you have it?” On the face of events, George seems to be a great success at the end of the movie. In case this is not abundantly apparent from the boisterous but benevolent 1940s Christmastime riot of unabashed exuberance—a reverse bank run or bottom-up version of the New Deal or a spontaneous neighborhood Marshall Plan—at the movie’s end. His brother—now a Medal of Honor recipient—proudly proclaims “To George Bailey, the richest man in town.” This is confirmed in the homey wisdom inscribed in a copy of Tom Sawyer by George’s guardian angel (and silly fictional device and concession to comic relief in a story about attempted suicide) Clarence that “no man is a failure who has friends”.
Of course Clarence is introduced into an already minimally realistic story to provide George with the exquisite but equally silly luxury—“a great gift”—of seeing what would have become of the town and its people without him (although to a lover of hot jazz, the business district of Pottersville—an alternate reality to the occasionally overly precious, Norman Rockwell-esque Bedford Falls—looks fairly attractive, with its hot jazz lounges, jitterbugging swing clubs, a billiards parlor, a (God forbid) burlesque hall, and what seems to be an unkind shot at Fats Waller).
In this Hugh Everett-like alternate narrative device and dark parallel universe, he sees that his wife Mary is an unhappy mouse-like spinster working in a (God forbid) library; that Harry drowned as a child and thus was not alive in1944 to save a fully loaded troop transport. Likewise, everybody else in the town is an embittered, anti-social, outright bad or tragic version of themselves relative to the personally frustrating yet generally wonderful Rated-G version of George’s wonderful life.
The problem is that George is not ordinary; he is no mere careerist, conventionalist, or money-chasing credentialist—he is a quick-thinking, maverick problem-solver with a heart of gold. He is exactly the kind of person we need now, but whom the establishment of our own time despises. Although harder to identify on sight, in our own time, the charming and attractive Mr. Potter’s of the world have won.
In literary terms, George is not a typical beaten-down loser-protagonist of the modernist canon; he is not a Bartleby the Scribner, a J. Alfred Prufrock, Leopold Bloom, or Willie Lohman, but then neither is his stolid father (George is perhaps more akin to Thomas Hardy’s talented but frustrated Jude Fawley or a better version of James Hilton’s Mr. Chips—characters who might have amounted to more had they not been limited or constrained by external circumstances).
Rather, George is more in keeping with the great tragic-heroic protagonists of the Greeks and Shakespeare (i.e. a person who could have pushed the limits of the humanly possibility), if only he could have gotten up to bat. He might have done genuinely great things, had his plans gotten off the ground, had the unforeseen chaos of life and social circumstances not intervened. Just after breaking his father’s heart by revealing his ambitions, George correctly assesses and confides that the old man is a “great guy.” True enough. But the conspicuous fact is that the older Bailey is much more on the scale of a local hero, a “pillar of the community”—a necessary type for any town to extinguish the day-to-day brush fires and is therefore perhaps more fully actualized and resigned to his role (even though it kills him mere hours later—or was it George’s announcement?). But George has bigger ambitions and presumably abilities to match.
In a perfect world, someone like Mr. Bailey, Sr. would be better (and in fact is) cast in the role to which his son is relegated, even though his ongoing David versus Goliath battles with Potter likely contributed to his early death. George might have found an even more wonderful life if he had gone to college and law school and then gone to Washington to work for Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen, or as a project manager of a large New Deal program, or managing war production against the Nazis and Imperial Japanese. Instead he organizes scrap and rubber drives and admonishes people to turn off their lights during air raid drills. In a better world, a lesser man could have handled all the relative evils of Bedford Falls.
Of course the alternative is that George is delusional throughout the film, that he is not as great as we are led to believe, that—like most of us—he is not as good as his biggest dreams. But there is nothing in the film to suggest that this is the case.
The moral for our own time is that we needs both kinds of Mr. Baileys—father and the son—and it is clear that in spite of numerous local victories, George could have done far more in the broader world (his less-interesting younger brother, Harry, seems to have unintentionally hijacked George’s plans and makes a good go of them: he goes off to college, lands a plumb research position in Buffalo as part-and-parcel of marrying a rich and beautiful wife, and then disproportionately helps win a world war, and returns, amazingly, as the same happy-go-lucky person complete with our nation’s highest military honor after lunching with Harry and Bess at the Executive Mansion). George is the Rooseveltian top-down planner and social democrat while Mr. Bailey, Sr., is the organic, Jane Jacobs localist.
Even if we accept Capra’s questionable premise that George’s life is the most wonderful of possible alternatives (or at least pretty darned good), the ending is not entirely satisfactory for people used to Hollywood Endings: George’s likable, but absent-minded, Uncle Billy inadvertently misplaces $8,000 dollars (perhaps ten or twenty-fold that amount in 2018 dollars) into Mr. Potter’s hands (a crime witnessed and abetted by Mr. Potter’s silent, wheelchair-pushing flunky, who, even without a uttering single line in the entire movie, is arguably the most despicable person in it—an equally silent counterpart to the photograph of the late Mr. Bailey, Sr.), and his honest mistake is never revealed nor presumably is the money ever recovered.
Mr. Potter’s crime does not come to light, and George is very nearly framed by the incident and driven to despair. Instead of a watery self-inflicted death in the Bedford River, he is happily bailed out (Bailey is bailed out after bailing out the town so many times), first by a homely angel and then by the now prosperous town of the immediate postwar.
The fact that his rich boyhood chum, the affable frat-boyish Sam Wainwright, is willing to extend $25,000 of his company’s petty cash puts the crisis into wider focus and perspective and makes us realize that George was never was really in that much trouble, at least financially (although the SEC might have found such a large transfer to a close friend with a mysterious $8000 deficit to be suspicious). Wainwright’s telegram is a comforting wink from Capra himself. Had he not been so distracted by an accumulation of trying circumstances—the daily slings and arrows of being a big fish in Bedford Falls—this kindness of Sam’s and the whole town is something that George might have intuited himself thus preventing his breakdown in the first place. The bank examiner (district attorney?), in light of the crowd’s vouchsafing George’s reputation, tears up the summons, grabs a cup of kindness and heartily joins in singing “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings.”
Still, the loss of $8,000 in Bedford Falls was a crisis that almost drove George to suicide. If he had been a manager of wartime industrial production, a similar loss would have been a rounding error that nobody but an accountant would have noticed.
At the movie’s end, George is safe and obviously touched by the outpouring of his community and appreciates just how god things really are (and you just know that any scene that begins with Donna Reed rushing in and clearing an entire tabletop of Christmas wrapping paraphernalia to make room for a torrential charitable cash flow is going to be ridiculously heart-warming). But at the movie’s end George remains as local and provincial as before, he has just been instructed to be happy with the way things have turned out (why not, it’s almost 1946 in America and everything turned out just fine). His wonderful life has produced a wonderful effort to meet a (still unsolved) crisis. Just imagine what he could have done with 1940s Federal funding and millions of similarly well-intended people to manage—like those who engineered the New Deal, the WWII mobilization, and the Marshall Plan. Would his name have ranked along with the likes of Harry Hopkins, Rex Tugwell, Adolph Bearle, Raymond Moley, Frances Perkins, John Kenneth Galbraith, Thomas Corcoran, Benjamin Cohen, Averell Harriman, George Marshall, George Kennan, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt themselves?
It is impossible not to surrender to the warmth and decency of this film’s ending, and I realize that this essay has been minute and dissecting in its analysis. What is the lesson of all of this? I think the moral to those of us in 2018 is that below the surface of this wonderful movie is a cautionary tale, and that if we are to face the emerging crises of our own time, we will at the very least require a whole Brains Trust of George Baileys in the right places and legions of local people like his father. There is a danger in shutting out this kind of person. We must also come to recognize the Mr. Potters of big business and their minions who have dominated for the past half-century. I suspect that they look nothing like Lionel Barrymore.
By Michael F. Duggan
There was a time not long ago when American foreign policy was based on the sensible pursuit of national interests. During the period 1989-1992 the United States was led by a man who was perhaps the most well-qualified candidate for the office in its history—a man who had known combat, who knew diplomacy, intelligence, legislation and the legislative branch, party politics, the practicalities of business and organizational administration, and how the executive and its departments functioned. For those of us in midlife, it seems like only yesterday, and yet in light of what has happened since in politics and policy, it might as well be a lifetime and a world away. The question is whether his administration was a genuine realist anomaly or merely a preface to what the nation has become.
Regardless, here’s to Old Man Bush: a good one-term statesman and public servant who was both preceded and followed by two-term mediocrities and mere politicians. A Commander-in-Chief who oversaw what was arguably the most well-executed large-scale military campaign in United States history (followed by poll numbers that might have been the highest in modern times) only to lose the next election. A moderate in politics and a good man personally who famously broke with the NRA, gave the nation a very necessary income tax hike on the rich (for which his own party never forgave him), but against his better instincts adopted the knee-to-groin campaign tactics of party torpedoes and handlers in what became one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns in US history (1988) and ushered-in the modern period of “gotcha” politics.
Some critics at the time observed that Bush arose on the coattails of others, a loyal subordinate, a second-place careerist and credentialist who silver-medaled his way to the top, a New England blue blood carpetbagger who (along with his sons) ran for office in states far from Connecticut and Maine. Such interpretations do violence to the dignity, nuance, diversity, and sheer volume of the man’s life. Bush was the real thing: a public servant—an aristocrat who dedicated most his life to serving the country. Prior to becoming President of the United States, Bush served in such diverse roles as torpedo bomber pilot, a wildcat oilman, Member of the House of Representatives, Liaison to a newly-reopened China, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the RNC, Director of the CIA, and Vice President of the United States. He was not, however a spotless hero.
The presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush (just plain “George Bush” prior to the late 1990s) was a brief moment, in some respects an echo of the realism that served the nation so well in the years immediately following WWII.
A foreign policy realist in the best sense of the term, Bush was the perfect man to preside over the end of the Cold War, and my sense is that the most notable foreign policy achievements of the Regan presidency probably belong even more to his more knowledgeable vice president with whom he consulted over Thursday lunches. As president in his own right, it was Bush who, with the help of a first team of pros that included the likes of Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Colin Powell, let up Russia gently after the implosion of the USSR (he knew that great nations do not take victory laps), only to be followed by amateurs and zealots who arrogantly pushed NATO right up to Russia’s western border and ushered-in what looks increasingly like a dangerous new Cold War. If a great statesman/woman is one who has successfully managed at least one momentous world event, than his handling of the end of the Cold War alone puts him into this category.
Interpreted as a singular U.S. and international coalition response to a violation to territorial sovereignty of one nation by another—and in spite of later unintended consequences—Desert Shield/Storm was a work of art: President Bush gave fair warning (admittedly risky) to allow the aggressor a chance to pull back and reverse course, masterfully sought and got an international mandate and then congressional approval, built a coalition, amassed his forces, went in with overwhelming force and firepower, achieved the goals of the mandate, got the hell out. But the success or failure of the “Hundred-Hour War” depends on whether it is weighed as a geopolitical “police action” or as just another episode of U.S. adventurism in the Near East, or as some kind of hybrid.
As a stand-alone event then, the campaign was “textbook,” but then in history there is no such thing as a completely discrete event. Can the operational success of Desert Storm be separated from what others see as a more checkered geopolitical legacy? Can the success of the “felt necessities of the time” of a theater of combat be tarnished by later, unseen developments? Was the “overwhelming force” of the Powell Doctrine (which could equally be called the Napoleon, Grant, MacArthur, or LeMay Doctrine) gross overkill and a preface to the “Shock and Awe” of his son’s war in the region? Was his calculated restriction of press access in a war zone a precursor to later and even more propagandistic wars with even less independent press coverage?
Just as history never happens for a single reason, nor is any victory truly singular, pure, and unalloyed. Twenty-six years on, I realize that my rosy construction of what has since become known as the First Gulf War (or the Second Iraq War in the interpretation of Andrew Bacevich) is not shared by all historians. Questions remain: was Saddam able to invade Kuwait because Bush and his team were distracted by momentous events in Europe? Was the Iraqi invasion merely a temporary punitive expedition that could have been prevented if Kuwait hadn’t aggressively undercut Iraqi oil profits? Would Hussein have withdrawn his forces on his own after sufficiently making his point? Was April Glaspie speaking directly for the President Bush or Secretary Baker when she met with the Iraqi leader on July 25, 1990? War is a failure of policy, and could the events leading up to the invasion (including public comments made by Baker’s spokesperson, Margaret Tutwiler) have been seen by the Iraqis as a green light in a similar way that the North Koreans could have construed Acheson’s “Defensive Perimeter” speech to the National Press Club in early 1950 as such? (See Bartholomew Sparrow, The Strategist, Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security. 420-421).
Some historians have been more critical in their “big picture” assessments of Desert Storm, claiming that when placed in the broader context of an almost four-decade long American war for the greater Middle East, this was just another chapter in a series of misled escalations (See generally Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, A Military History). In this construction too, the war planners had not decapitated the serpent and had left Hussein’s most valuable asset—the Republican Guard—mostly intact to fight another day against an unsupported American ally who Mr. Bush had arguably encourage to rise up, the Iraqi Kurds (as well as Shiites).
While some of these points are still open questions, the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution did not include taking out Hussein. In light of what happened after 2003, when we did topple the regime, Bush I and his planners seem all the more sensible, in my opinion. Moreover the “Highway of Death” was beginning to look like just that—a traffic jam of gratuitous murder—laser-guided target practice, “a turkey shoot”against a foe unable defend himself, much less fight back. With the Korean War as historical example, Scowcroft was cognizant of the dangers implicit in changing or exceeding the purely military goals of a limited mandate in the face of apparent easy victory. Having met the stated war aims, Powell and Scowcroft both advocated ceasing the attack as did Dick Cheney. (See Sparrow, The Strategist, Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security. 414-415).
When second-guessed about why the U.S. did not “finish the job,” his advisors answered with now haunting and even prophetic rhetorical questions about the wisdom of putting U.S. servicemen between Sunnis and Shiites (James Baker’s later observation about the war in the Balkans that “[w]e don’t have a dog in that fight” seems to have applied equally to internal Iraqi affairs). Besides, it would have made no sense to remove a powerful secular counterbalance to Iran, thus making them the de facto regional hegemon. Did the U.S. “abandon” Iraq while on the verge of “saving” it? Should the U.S. have “stayed” (whatever that means)? My takeaway from the history of outsiders in the Middle East is that the only thing more perilous than “abandoning” a fight in the region once apparent victory is secured is to continue fighting, and that once in, there is no better time to get out than the soonest possible moment. It would seem that the history of U.S. adventures in Iraq since 2003—the Neocon legacy of occupation and nation-building—speaks for itself.
Bush’s apparently humanitarian commitment of American forces to the chaos of Somalia in the waning days of his administration still baffles realist sensibilities and seems to have honored Bush’s own principles in the breach. It simply makes no sense. One can claim that it was purely a temporary measure that grew under the new administrations, but it is still hard to square with the rest of Bush’s foreign policy.
Of course there were other successes and failures of a lesser nature: high-handedness in Central America that included a justified but excessive invasion of Panama. The careful realist must also weigh his masterful handling of the demise of the Soviet Union with what looks like a modest and principled kind of economic globalization and what appears to be a kind of self-consciously benevolent imperialism: the United States as the good cop on the world beat. The subsequent catastrophic history of neoliberal globalization and of U.S. adventurism have cast these budding tendencies in a more sobering light.
Politics and Domestic Policy
Domestically, Bush’s generous instincts came to the fore early on and reflected the Emersonian “Thousand Points of Light” of his nomination acceptance address, and he did more than most people realize. He gave us the Americans with Disability Act (ADA)—one of the most successful pieces of social legislation of recent decades—the modest Civil Rights Act of 1991, the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, a semiautomatic rifle ban, successfully handled the consequences of the Savings and Loan Crisis, and of course he put David Souter on the High Court. Perhaps he did not know how to deal with the recession of 1991. My reading is that the recession was an ominous initial rumbling of things to come, as American workers increasingly became victims of economic globalization. Some historians believe that the good years of the 1990s owe a fair amount to Bush’s economic polices, including the budge agreement of 1990. Bush fatefully underestimated the rise of the far right in his own party, making his plea for a “kinder, gentler” nation and political milieu a tragic nonstarter. His catch phrase from the 1980 campaign characterizing the absurdity of supply-side economics as “voodoo economics” was spot-on, but was another apostasy that true-believers in his own party were unlikely to forget or forgive. Certainly he did not do enough to address the AIDS crisis.
It is shocking that a man of Bush’s sensibilities and personal qualities conducted the presidential campaign of 1988 the way he did. Against a second-rate opponent, the “go low,” approach now seems like gross and unnecessary overkill—a kind of political “Highway of Death”—that was beneath the dignity of such an honorable man. On a similar note, it is hard to understand his occasional hardball tactics, like the bogus fight he picked with Dan Rather on live television at the urging of handlers. Perhaps it was to counter the charges of his being a “wimp.”
Again, this approach seems to have been completely unnecessary—overreaction urged by politicos and consultants from the darker reaches of the campaign arts. How is it even possible that a playground epithet like wimp would even find traction against a man of Bush’s demonstrated courage, honor, and commitment? All anybody had to do was remind people that he youngest navy pilot in the Second World War who had enlisted on the first day he legally could, and that he was fished out of the Pacific after being shot down in an Avenger torpedo bomber (but then Bush embodied an ethos of aristocratic modesty and the idea that one did not talk about oneself, much less brag); by comparison, the rugged Ronald Reagan never went anywhere near a combat zone (as a documentary on the American Experience noted, “Bush was everything Regan pretended to be”: a war hero, college athlete, and a family man who children loved unconditionally). Not sure if Clinton ever made any pretense of fortitude.
We ask our presidents to succeed in two antithetical roles: that of politician and of statesmen, and in recent years, the later has triumphed seemingly at the expense of the former. Style has mostly trumped substance, something that underscores a flaw in our system and what is has become. As casualties of reelection campaigns against charismatic opponents, Gerald Ford and “Bush 41” might be a metaphor for this flaw and of our time and a lesson emphasizing the fine distinction that a single-term statesman is generally superior and preferable to a more popular two two-term politician. Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama were all truly great politicians and unless you were specifically against them or their policies, there was a reasonable chance that they could win you over on one point or another with style, communication skills, and magnetic charm. That said, and unlike the senior Bush, I would contend that there is not a genuine statesman in that group.
It is difficult for any president to achieve greatness in either foreign or domestic affairs, much less in both (as a latter day New Dealer, I would say that FDR may have been the last to master both). George Herbert Walker Bush was a good foreign policy president and not bad overall—a leader at the heart of a competent administration. By all accounts, he was good man overall and the people who knew him are heaping adjectives on is memory: dignity, humility, honor, courage, class—a good president and a notable American public servant. But ultimately personal goodness has little to do with the benevolence or harm of policy, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, good is what good does (some policy monsters are personally charming and even decent while some insufferable leaders may produce great and high-minded policy), and as aging news transforms with greater circumspect into history, the jury is still out on much of the complex legacy of Bush I.
Subsequent events have cast doubt on what seemed at the time to be spotless successes, and realistic gestures now seem more like preface to less restrained economic internationalism and military adventurism. Still, I am willing to give the first President Bush the benefit of the doubt on interpretations of events still in flux. Just in writing this, and given what has happened in American politics and policy ever since, I have the sinking feeling that we not see his like again for a long time, if ever again.