On Saturday evening American families will gather in their living rooms and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” on NBC. This and other Frank Capra films tell the story of why America is truly exceptional and what President Obama can say when he addresses the nation about the state of the union.
In “Wonderful Life,” George Bailey is the small-town banker who stands with his neighbors when times are hard. His nemesis Mr. Potter, who remains with us today by different names, believes his neighbors should be bullied and abused so those with the most can have even more.
George Bailey saves his neighbors in hard times, and they save him when Mr. Potter tries to destroy him. This is the true story of American exceptionalism the president can tell when he discusses the state of the union.
In Capra’s America, we are in this together as common men and women who care about each other, respect each other and come from widely different backgrounds of family and faith. We join together with a common cause and shared patriotism that form the true American exceptionalism.
In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” American exceptionalism is the legislator who stands against special interests and political bosses.
In “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” American exceptionalism is a small-town artist who inherits a great fortune and is ripped off by greedy bigwigs. They try to have him declared insane because he gives his money to those who hurt in hard times.
In “Meet John Doe,” American exceptionalism is a hobo hired for a scam who becomes an honest voice for the John and Jane Does who make America great, and ask only for a fair shake.
In his films that rallied America against fascism, Capra did not glorify profiteers. He honored those wearing the uniform. He inspired the nation that stood behind them with the American belief that we are in this together in the cause of a great and exceptional country.
It is not American exceptionalism to divide our nation, demean our neighbors, attack those who are different, believe the most important goal is winning the next election or deform our democracy to promote self-interest, which is what our Founders warned us against.
Let’s mobilize believers of all faiths to do even more to help the hurting among us. Let’s call on everyone, from entertainers to bankers, to support national events to help wounded warriors and jobless workers, as so many did in Frank Capra’s America.
I would again suggest that Colin Powell be brought to center stage of our national life, either in a senior White House post or as chairman of a commission to promote true bipartisanship. Let’s call to service former White House chiefs of staff, Cabinet members and congressional leaders who served presidents and Congresses of both parties to help a divided government unite a restive nation.
We are not a nation of Mr. Potters. I hope in his State of the Union address the president makes a sweeping statement about our real American exceptionalism and shared patriotism that lifts our sights, and our spirits.