Senator Jefferson Smith, the Tea Party and America

My colleague Michael Denton has a thought provoking post which may be read here, in which he contends that the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington does not stand for the ideals of America, but rather that the Christian message of Love Thy Neighbor is what saves Senator Smith.  Michael makes many valid points in his cogent post, but I respectfully disagree that the film is as negative about America as Michael contends, and I think that if the fictional Senator Jefferson Smith were brought to life in our day, he would be a leader of the Tea Party movement.  Here are my reasons for making these statements:

1. The Founding Fathers:  Like the Tea Party movement, Jefferson Smith takes his inspiration and his political principles from the Founding Fathers (with Lincoln thrown in).  We see this clearly in this scene:

Smith is a reminder to a jaded world that, “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”

When he momentarily loses his idealism about these principles he is reminded that the principles are true by his formerly cynical secretary Clarissa, stunningly portrayed by Jean Arthur, who he, unbeknownst to himself, has converted to his point of view:

“Your friend, Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now. Not you. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that’s all. You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world, a lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there, waiting for someone to come along. You were right. He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it, that’s what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root them out into the open. I think he was waiting for you, Jeff. He knows you can do it, so do I.”

2.  Faith in the People-This of course is an axiom of democracy.  Democracy makes absolutely no sense unless one believes that most people do wish to do the right thing most of the time, once they are sure of what is right.  Jefferson Smith has this faith as does the Tea Party with its populist appeals.  He believes that once the people of his state know the type of political corruption that controls their state, they will rise up to crush Taylor and his machine.  The villains of the film agree with him:

James Taylor to Senator Paine:  “If he even starts to convince those Senators, you might as well blow your brains out, you know that, don’t ya? This is the works, Joe! Either we’re out of business or we’re bigger than we ever were before. We can’t miss a trick. We can’t stop at anything until we’ve smashed this yokel and buried him so deep…”

Taylor fears the people of his state and that is why he uses gangster tactics to keep the news of what Jefferson Smith is saying on the floor of the Senate from getting to them.

When Smith is confronted with Taylor’s astroturfed messages denouncing him, he refuses to give up, his body giving way, but not his spirit.  Ironically, I think if a vote were cast thereafter in the Senate, Smith would have won.  The Senators are viewed in the film as listening to him intently towards the end of the filibuster and are portrayed in the film as increasingly sympathetic to him:

Senator:  “I didn’t like this boy from the beginning. But most of us feel that no man who wasn’t sincere could stage a fight like this against these impossible odds.”

3.  Individuals Are Corrupt But Not the Country-Contrary to Michael’s contention, the film is a celebration of the American system and not a condemnation of it.  Individuals are shown as corrupt but the American democracy is portrayed as fundamentally sound.  The message of the film is neatly encapsulated in this scene featuring the legendary announcer H.V. Kaltenborn:

Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home. DEMOCRACY IN ACTION.  (The last three sentences never fail to give me a thrill of pride in this country.) 

4.  Fiscal Prudence-  Jefferson Smith is just as concerned as any Tea Partier about government spending.  He wants the government to loan the boy rangers the money for their national camp.  The boy rangers will pay the money back by their donations.

5.  Reading Bills-Like the Tea Party, Senator Smith has the quaint notion that members of Congress should actually read bills prior to voting on them:

6.  Faith in God-Jefferson Smith is obviously a man of faith as demonstrated by his reading, during his filibuster, the great epistle of Saint Paul in which the apostle writes about love.  The vast majority of the Tea Party would heartily cheer him for doing this.

7.  Optimism-Mr. Smith is an optimistic film about the country, and the Tea Party movement shares this optimism.  Not a cheap optimism that ignores problems and corruptions, but a true optimism that recognizes the underlying strength of the principles that made and sustain this nation:

Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. This works as a feel-good movie and Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are wonderful in this flick, but it’s so far removed from reality as to make it almost parody. There never has been a senator, or U.S. politician in any office for that matter, who remotely resembles the ideas of Jefferson Smith. Can anyone truly imagine ANYONE in either chamber today, or in recent memory, who comes close to expressing the ideals that Smith evoked?

    Sen. Joe Payne (Claude Rains) comes a lot closer to reality — a puppet on a string pulled by the James Taylors of the world, who are the real power wielders.

  2. I tend to be cynical about cynicism Joe. There are many politicians who remind me of Jefferson Smith. Rick Santorum for example, who realized that his strong opposition to abortion and his strong support for the war in Iraq were unpopular in blue Pennsylvania, but who stuck to his convictions and lost his Senate seat in 2006. Sarah Palin who rose to the governorship of Alaska by taking on a corrupt old boy network in her state in her own party. Governor Casey of Pennsylvania who suffered the wrath of his party for his pro-life convictions. The late Congressman Henry Hyde, ever the champion of the unborn. Christopher Smith, Congressman from New Jersey, ever a tireless champion of the unborn, although he is from one of the bluest states of the Union.

  3. My cynicism — more skepticism and realism — stems from more than 30 years in journalism, often with a front row seat to political chicanery at all levels, from the town supervisor to the POTUS.

    I would not disabuse you of your choices — although none would make my list (particularly the adulterer and hypocrite Hyde), which is otherwise countable on the fingers of one hand after a bad lawn mower accident of those who merit standing in the pantheon of political heroes. Lincoln for starters.

    If memory serves — and I have a good one — let us recall the 2008 “financial coup d’etat,” as some have called it, engineered by BOTH PARTIES, in which $700 million in taxpayer money was used to bail out Goldman, Sachs, et al. First defeated in Congress after 70% of the American people vehemently objected, it was passed 3 days later, thanks to Hank Paulson and his Goldman pals crafting a 3-page bill that eliminated any possible challenge by the courts. Your government and mine at work. Part credit goes to Machiavelli and John Maynard Keynes for the inspiration to the gang of crooks that run Washington. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman CEO, was at Obama’s Chinese dinner the other night. A million-dollar “political contribution” buys you a lot of friends.

    Harsh words, but there are so many other examples of political corruption and misrepresentative democracy (Prop 8, Obamacare, ad nauseum) that one wonders how you can find any nobility or honesty in, collectively, a venal bunch, then and now.

    I no longer, though I once did, share your idealist view — it is admirable and one that I held many years ago, but since have discarded despite hopes that notions of honesty, fairness and justice might prevail in the conduct of the people’s business. Lincoln warned that this nation could only be defeated “by the vandals within.” Nearly century earlier, jefferson, Madison & Co. sounded similar jeremiads about veering from the Founding principles. Also, a little H.L. Mencken wouldn’t hurt to keep from taking it all too seriously.

    God bless.

  4. Hyde was not a hyprocrite Joe, and I am surprised that you fell for the Clintons digging up an affair from the sixties to attempt to discredit one of the true heroes of Congress of our time. Whatever damage that Hyde’s adultery did to his marriage did not destroy it, his wife and he staying together for 47 years until her death in 92, and to dig it up was simply the type of petty cruelty associated with the Clintons. Hyde, in the face of this, successfully completed his task of having the House vote to impeach the worst man ever to sit in the White House, another reason I honor his memory.

    In regard to the bailout swindle of 2008, there were a fair number of Congressmen and 25 Senators who kept their heads and did not panic in a situation of crisis, when they were told that the economic system was near collapse. I think those who voted for the bailout were gravely in error, but I do not think that most of those who voted for it did so out of bad faith.

    As for H.L. Mencken, he was a good writer, but as a human being he deserved only a punch in the nose.

  5. ‘As for H.L. Mencken, he was a good writer, but as a human being he deserved only a punch in the nose.’

    Perhaps, but that could apply to many good writers. : )

    That I am a regular followers of TAC suggests I am not totally jaded.
    There’s a sliver of the idealist left in me.

  6. Why of course they are John! Why didn’t I see that. The Founding Fathers regarded as a “mob”, assemblages of citizens, peacefully petitioning the government for redress of grievances, exercising their freedom of speech and voting for candidates who reflect their views. How terrifyingly “mob-like”. That of course is why the Founding Fathers in the Bill of Non-rights denied freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right of the people to petition for redress of grievances. Thank you much John. That is also why the Constitution begins “We the Elite”. Now I understand!

  7. The January 2007 edition of Godspy had an article by Bod Bennet about Frank Capra’s vision that explains his work. I extracted the key sections here

    This is why Frank Capra, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most challenging of all filmmakers and in some ways the most disturbing. Most “serious films”—the “hard-hitting” “uncompromising” films—ask us only to accept, for example, that poverty is bad, relationships are hard, that politics is corrupt. In short, their “challenge” consists precisely in asking us to accept ideas that we already accept anyway, even if we struggle to know just what to do about them. In these comedies, Capra asks us to accept that the old-fashioned American ideals are still good, that David really can whip Goliath, that our prayers do not go unheard, that the meek shall inherit the earth. In other words, he asks us to accept things about which we have grave, grave doubts. And he is uncompromising in his asking: he doesn’t ask us to accept these propositions as nice or inspirational or comforting or helpful—he asks us to accept them as true. That, my friend, is a challenging filmmaker. That is serious, avant-garde cinema, if you will.

  8. Did you ban Adrian Wainer from posting in this site simply because he posted a posting in the wrong thread by accident ?

  9. By the way, Charles was right in so far as I genuinely could not post. But Mr Donald R. McClarey I accept you are being perfectly honest as does Charles. Sometimes, there are additional features built in to software, which are not explained to users and there could be a lock which kicks in when a posting is deleted which stops a poster from posting for a couple of hours as an auto-spam protection, so that could be an explanation.

  10. I only saw one comment which mentioned the ground zero mosque. I agree with you in regard to the mosque but I didn’t want the thread going off on that tanget. I didn’t see another comment by you on this thread. Sometimes akismet can get cranky and for no apparent reason toss a comment into the spam file, but I saw nothing there either.

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