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!