Mr.Smith Goes to Washington
Well, it is time again in the McClarey household for our mini three day July vacation. (We take a week off in June and August.) Today we make our annual pilgrimage down to Springfield to the Lincoln sites. We say a prayer at the tomb of Mr. Lincoln for the repose of his soul and the souls of his wife and children. All of Lincoln’s immediate family are buried there except Robert Lincoln, a Civil War veteran, who is buried in Arlington.
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.” Continue reading
Don’t worry! We are done with elections for a while! I am not going to start writing about 2012 already! However, as annoying as the election commercials, mendacious politicians and all the assorted insults to our intelligence that are part and parcel of political campaigns are, we sometimes forget how truly remarkable a process it is in the history of our planet. Continue reading
When the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appeared in 1939, many intelligent observers were predicting that the age of Democracy was at an end and that the age of Fascism and Communism was dawning. Democracy, perhaps, was a lost cause. In the face of a tide of totalitarianism that seemed to be destined to engulf the globe, Frank Capra made this film celebrating Democracy.
It is a very odd sort of celebration. The film starkly presents one of the key problems in any Democracy: the political corruption that mocks the ability of the people to rule themselves.
Jefferson Smith, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in his first leading man role, is a grown-up boy scout. He has never surrendered his belief in this country and its ideals, because he has always lived in a sort of never-never land that he has created. He is the head of the Boy Rangers (the Boy Scouts foolishly refused to allow their name to be used in the film), and he looks at the world with the idealism of a boy who simply wants to do what is right. One of the senators from his state, Sam Foley, dies in office. The governor of his state, an indecisive man, decides to appoint Smith to the Senate based upon the recommendation of his children and because he realizes that he will not be criticized for appointing this do-gooder. The man who actually controls the state, political boss Jim Taylor, unforgettably portrayed by Edward Arnold, goes along with the choice after being assured that Smith is a babe in the woods and will be easy to manipulate.
The senior senator from the state, Joseph Paine, is surprised to learn that Smith is the son of an old friend of his, a crusading small town newspaper editor, who was murdered in the course of one of his crusades. Paine was a crusading attorney, but he has long since sold his soul to Jim Taylor: a senate seat in exchange for Paine serving as Taylor’s man in Washington.
Jefferson Smith does seem initially to be a very poor choice to fill a spot in the Senate. He is filled with idealism, but has almost no knowledge about what a senator does. He does have one big goal however: the establishment of a camp in his state where the Boy Rangers may have a camp. He drafts a bill to this effect with the help of his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, played by Jean Arthur in her finest role. Saunders is in many ways the opposite of Smith. She is a paid agent of the Taylor machine, and is filled with endless cynicism. However, she is also filled with practical knowledge about how the Senate operates. She finds herself, against her will, falling in love with Smith and his idealism.