John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


In Defense of Mr. Potter

Posted on December 20, 2011
In Defense of Mr. Potter

It used to be during the Christmas season that my family would sit transfixed, watching Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” as it played over and over again on just about every one of the four networks.

That was before NBC bought the rights and now it is only shown once during the season.

IAWL is a great flick, but the more I watch it, the more I start to feel sympathy for Henry Potter, chief villain.

Mr. Potter is meant to embody all that is wrong with the business world.  He lacks empathy for his fellow citizens.  He is mean.  He is bitter.  He is childless.  And worse, he is very, very wealthy.

Frank Capra, the famous director who brought IAWL to the silver screen, would fit in well with the Occupy Wall Street crowd.  The man simply did not care much for bankers.

But think about it from Potter’s viewpoint for a second.

The man has a lot to recommend him, especially as played by Lionel Barrymore.

First, he is overcoming a disability.  He does not let that wheelchair slow him down.

He is cool under pressure.  Even George Bailey admired that attribute: “Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicking and he's not. That's why. He's picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other.”

Potter was a realist.  He knew what people thought of him. “George, I'm an old man and most people hate me but I don't like them either so that makes it all even," he said at one point in the movie.

He was a community servant.  His fellow citizens thought enough of him to put in charge of the draft board when the war started.

He pushed for policies that stressed personal responsibility.  He didn’t favor loans to people who would most likely not pay them back.  He didn’t like the Building and Loan because he feared it’s loan policies would create, “A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class."

He was a sharp personal finance advisor.  He cut to the chase with George Bailey when he said (after Bailey asked for some help after his Uncle Billy lost all of that money,  “Why, George... you're worth more dead than alive.”

He was a modern day philosopher who stressed realism.  A perfect example of that was in this description of George’s father:  “Peter Bailey was not a businessman. 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.”

He was a man who could keep his focus.  When George called him a warp old man and said that, in his book, his father died a much richer man than Potter would ever be, Potter replied sharply, “I’m not interested in your book. I'm talking about the Building and Loan.

Potter was also a keen judge of talent.  He knew that George Bailey could be a success, which is why he wanted to hire him for his vast business empire.  Bailey rejected is kind offer and then, quite unceremoniously, started cursing the old man.  What kind of respect is that?

Potter wasn’t living in his own little world.  He knew what was going on around town.  He knew the rumors.  He knew that George was funneling money to Violet Bick.    Was it hush money?  Was it money for sex?  We will never know, and Potter didn’t press the point.  As he put it, “it’s no skin off of my nose.”

It’s a Wonderful Life has made it awfully hard out there for the Mr. Potters of the world.  But we would have been much better off if we had a little more hard-nosed realism, and a little less silly and expensive idealism.  Not everybody can own their own home.  Not everybody is college material.  Just imagine if our banking industry had actually had some loan standards before the bubble burst.  Just imagine if we had a society that stressed personal responsibility over collective responsibility.

We all love George Bailey and of course that is what we are supposed to do because that is how Frank Capra wanted us to feel.  But Mr. Potter deserves a second look.  He might have been a mean old warped bastard, but he was a sharp businessman and a community leader.   Even Mr. Potter deserves a strong defense, even during the Christmas season.