FRAMESHOP:OLD MAN CHENEY

Dick Cheney's role in politics since he left the White House comes straight out of an iconic American film by Frank Capra.

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 04/21/2009

Whenever Dick Cheney grants one of his throaty interviews to FOX News, my mind jumps instantly to Frank Capra's iconic film "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946).  While some vice presidents fade into obscurity and others become presidents, Cheney has chosen to revive Lionel Barrymore's legendary performance as Old Man Potter.    So far, Cheney has been dead-on convincing.

Cheney's most recent performance was acted out on the Sean Hannity show, where he warned of the grave dangers that would be visited on America as a result of President Obama's diplomatic style abroad and his release of the so-called "torture memos" at home.

Watching that interview is like watching out takes from Frank Capra's vault. The similarity is eerie.

Of course, Henry F. Potter never talked about torture and totalitarianism in "It's A Wonderful Life."  Even though the violence of war enters periodically into the narrated cross-fades, Capra's tale of George Bailey is almost entirely about the 20th-Century struggle between two kinds of economics in America.  In one corner is George Bailey (James Stewart), owner of the town savings and loan that enables working Americans to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, buy homes, and otherwise escape the financial tar pit of the company town.  In the other corner is Potter, who owns everything else and seeks to use his financial power to keep the townsfolk in debt and underfoot.

Despite the clash of economic philosophies in the film, the real power of "It's A Wonderful Life" is in the morality play it stages between bright-eyed, suburban optimism and sulfurous, factory-town pessimism.   This exchange between George Baily and his father about Potter early in the film sums up which side Capra wants us all to take in this epic struggle:

GEORGE
I'm going to miss you, too, Pop. What's the matter? You look
tired.

POP
Oh, I had another tussle with Potter today.

GEORGE
Oh . . .

POP
I thought when we put him on the Board of Directors, he'd ease up
on us a little bit.

GEORGE
I wonder what's eating that old money-grubbing buzzard anyway?

POP
Oh, he's a sick man. Frustrated and sick. Sick in his mind, sick
in his soul, if he has one. Hates everybody that has anything
that he can't have. Hates us mostly, I guess. (link)

George and his father tell the audience that the struggle is not just between a rich industrialist and a family savings and loan, but between those who love American optimism and those who hate it.

By the end of the film, Potter, of course, loses the battle. Along the way, however, something extraordinary happens: every single character in the film migrates over to George Bailey's optimistic, American individualism, except Old Man Potter.  Cops, misers, soldiers, cabdrivers, old, young, married, and single--even God ends up siding with George Bailey's version of the American dream.   Everyone rallies to George's side, everyone chooses optimism over pessimism, everyone breaks free of company town greed, invests in a community of home owners, and celebrates civic pride.  Everyone bathes in the optimism except one person:  Old Man Potter.   "Happy New Year--in jail!" Potter grouses at an ecstatic George Baily who finally understands the joy of his own life. "Go on home, they're waiting for you!" 

Rather than joining the new age, Potter retreats and retrenches his belief that misery prevails when optimism fails.  Hence, preemptive gloom is the true voice of wisdom.  While George Baily and his friends toast their friendship and the promise of a hopeful future, Old Man Potter stays at the office, presumably carrying on his dark satanic grumblings despite the explosion of personal triumph that engulfs the yuletide Bedford Falls.  There is neither joy nor Christmas for the factory baron who never believed the people were anything but a mob of dreamers to be manipulated by fear and squeezed for profit.  At least Dickens' Ebeneezer Scrooge gets some reprieve at the end of his tale.  Not so for Potter.  He ends "It's a Wonderful Life" more angry and crabby than he began.

The theatrical grumpiness injected into American political debate by Dick Cheney is startlingly similar to the onscreen misery generated by Capra's unrepentant villain.

Like Potter and all his nay saying about small loans, Cheney's doomsday soothsaying has little to do with foreign policy, diplomacy, torture or anything else one might be tempted to describe as "expertise" or "issues."  Cheney is simply America's Old Man Potter, grumpiness transposed from the black-and-white backrooms of Bedford Falls to the interview chair of FOX News.

Similar to Potter, Cheney's political crankiness seems fused with his physical demeanor evermore in each public appearance.  And like Potter, the more crumpled, blanketed, zimmer-framed and wiry-haired Cheney becomes, the more the public revels in rooting against him.

Therein lies the paradox of Potter's role in the film and Cheney's role as former VP.  Nobody wants or thinks for even a second that this new-old antagonist of American optimism will win out in the end--but along the way, there is a certain pleasure in watching the Old Man Potter and Old Man Cheney fail again and again and again.

At first glance, in other words, it may seem that people like Sean Hannity are just promoting the political views of Old Man Cheney to advance their broader interest in conservative politics.  In reality, the Sean Hannity's of the world prop Cheney on stage with little more in mind than cashing in on the fight.

Sean Hannity, and by extension the production team at FOX News, does not believe that Americans by the millions will suddenly abandon their optimism and flock to the doom-and-gloom of Dick Cheney.  Instead, he believes he can cash in on the morality play of the moment by pushing Cheney back onto the stage, subsequently churning as many viewers and as much ad revenue as he can from all the trouncing Cheney receives.

In the end, then, Sean Hannity's interview with Dick Cheney serves as a kind of Tom Stoppard rendition of "It's a Wonderful Life" that might take place after the lights came up and the audience left the theater.  Once the town rallies to George Bailey's side and sets out to build 1950s suburban utopia, a few young entrepreneurs hatch a plan to profit from the grumpy image of Old Man Potter.  "It would be easy," the loudest among they might say in an Australian accent (hypothetically). 'All we need to do is roll the old goat on stage, egg him on with a few lines about the dreamers in the new administration, and then make sure the cameras are rolling when he starts carping.' 

It's a wonderful life, alright.  And Old Man Cheney is here to stay.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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