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1996: 'Who's Potter?'

'WHO'S Potter in this?'' I ask my movie-scriptwriter son when he puts his latest opus on my desk.

Even an endearing protagonist like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey in the classic 1946 film ''It's a Wonderful Life'' needs an antagonist like Lionel Barrymore's mean-spirited banker Potter to play against. Stewart represented the little guy, the family man, who missed out on the big opportunity because he stood by his community and friends. Potter was the sterile banker who maneuvered for power, wealth, and control. The social context was a society still stunned by the Great Depression and the great war.

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A half century later, the emotional undertow of class warfare is still apparent in American society. And where politics melds into cinema (remember candidate Ronald Reagan responding with lines from his movies - ''This is my microphone! I paid for it!''), it can be hard to tell whether candidates believe they are the characters they are presenting. Often one hopes not.

In 1996 the social context is the downsizing of corporations, the devaluation of college degrees, the creation of a vast prison colony for misfits, and a shift of debt to the young that is setting up a tension between generations.

These forces have an up side. Technological change, the opening of higher education to women and nontraditional students, better health for seniors, more-porous trade borders all create opportunities. Less inflation means pensions hold up better; but the size of the mortgage holds up too, and wages increase more slowly, so it seems harder to reach the goal of financial independence that is helping to pump billions of dollars into the stock market.

''Our goal isn't to make millions,'' one young man with three university degrees says of his generation. ''It's to live debt-free.''

Pat Buchanan is running against his own view of Potter. He rails against the big corporations whose stock he owns, and when his candidacy ends he will return to the entertainment business, having pumped up the market value of his name.

Bob Dole's Potter is caught back in World War II. Dole can be a hard-times Republican. He has continuously served his party and country with few thanks.

Steve Forbes seeks support for his ''city on a hill'' free-market optimism and his flat-tax interpretation of equal opportunity. To his credit, he does not condemn those who disagree with him on social issues like abortion rights.

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In 1946 a world had to be rebuilt, and was. The political cold-war virus of McCarthyism had to be stamped out. The economy boomed and busted through the economic cycles of the '50s.

Rights to education and housing access had to be won in the '60s, and a war in Asia was lost. The '70s were the time of environmental awareness, a sense of ''limits'' and a ''can't do'' president. The '80s were a time of expansion, a jolting stock-market selloff, and debt so pervasive it became known as ''junk.''

In 1996 the economic question is: How much is enough? Business asks: How little can I feed the cow before it keels over? The worker asks: How much do I need to survive with a little dignity?

It is a ''now'' focus.

A lot of Americans think the level of government debt is shameful and the level of personal debt is devastating. Potter has teamed up with government.

The little guy can still devise strategies to cope with Potter: reinvent family and community, economize, vote, affirm the largess of each day, and leave Potter not to the politicians who know him only too well, but to the poverty of his own designs.

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