WASHINGTON — When Senate Republicans moved ahead with their plans to change the filibuster rule, liberals and other critics turned to an old sentimental favorite to bolster their case: Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
People For the American Way launched a $5 million ad campaign using images from the film. The New York Times evoked it in pro-filibuster editorials as did liberal columnists like Bill Press.
The award for cheapest use of it, though, goes to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J). On the Senate floor Thursday he lectured in front of a huge picture of the film’s star Jimmy Stewart, who uses the filibuster to thwart the forces of evil.
The movie, he said, “is a celebration of this Senate, the world’s greatest deliberative body. But if the majority leader is successful in ending the filibuster . . . we will move from the world’s greatest deliberative body to a rubber-stamp factory.”
If that happens, he warned, the U.S. Senate would become like the Senate in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. The Dark Side of the Force, apparently, would take over.
These comments, and many other similar ones by the pro-filibuster crowd, raise a simple question: Have any of these folks actually watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington recently?
Because if they had, they’d know that it doesn’t actually live up to its reputation as a quaint, sentimental “celebration of the Senate.” It’s actually a pretty dark, cynical film about U.S. Democracy in 1930s. The movie’s underlying theme is how Roosevelt’s New Deal corrupted Congress.
More to the point, Smith’s climatic filibuster bears no resemblance to the Democrats’ filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees.
LET’S RECAP THE FILM for those who have not seen it or who may have forgotten.
Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, leader of a Boy Scouts-type organization who is plucked from obscurity to fill out the term of the state’s just-deceased U.S. senator.
He’s picked because he’s thought to be too naive to do anything other than go along with the state’s other senator, Joseph Paine, the silver-haired picture of noblesse oblige (Claude Raines, in another great performance as a suave, morally compromised man).
It quickly becomes apparent that Smith is different from the other senators: he doesn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars.
His first bill is to create a boys’ camp in his home state. He only wants a loan from the government, not a grant, and intends to pay it back through private fund-raising. The government, he says, has enough to do without paying for his boys’ camp.
Trouble begins for Smith when he learns that the land he wants to put the camp on has already been set aside for major dam project Paine is sponsoring. The deal is pure pork-barrel politics and important to media baron Jim Taylor, who stands to make a fortune from it.
Smith decides he cannot support it. It’s graft and a waste of money besides, he says.
“There are a hundred other places in the state that really need the water,” he says. He is aghast that Paine, whom he idolizes, would support it.
Paine tries to “talk sense” into Smith, delivering a soliloquy about the virtue of spending taxpayer money:
“Thirty years ago I had your ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. And I made it. I compromised — yes! So that all those years, I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways. You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball,” he tells Smith. (Emphasis added.)
There in a nutshell is the corruption that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is focused on: the belief that there is something good, even noble, about robbing Peter (i.e. the taxpayer) to pay Paul.
BEAR IN MIND, THE film came out in 1939 when FDR’s New Deal was still in full swing. The movie argues that the deal’s public spending projects corrupted lawmakers by giving them millions to dole out. Inevitably, favoritism, back-scratching and worse set in and once-noble legislators like Paine are corrupted.
Worse yet, everybody in the film except Smith accepts this as normal. No wonder D.C. lawmakers denounced the film when it first came out.
Paine warns Smith not to oppose the dam project, telling him that “powerful forces” (i.e. Taylor and his newspapers) want it. “They’ll destroy you” if he stands in their way, Paine says.
Smith is unmoved and makes clear that he’ll challenge it on the Senate floor and expose how it will benefit Taylor.
Paine responds by coldly betraying Smith, framing him for an ethics violation and trying to get him ejected from the Senate. In the film’s climax, Smith refuses to relinquish the Senate floor, preventing the other Senators from voting to oust him.
This is the film’s famous filibuster and it has nothing to do with keeping a judicial nominee off the bench. It is all about Smith fighting for his own survival against the entrenched interests in Washington.
It’s also worth noting that this is the old-fashioned kind of filibuster, where Smith must speak constantly or yield the floor. The rule has been changed since then. These days Democrats merely need to say they’re filibustering a judge and they can still be home for dinner.
In the end, Smith’s filibuster itself doesn’t really do anything anyway. He collapses after speaking for nearly a full day and Paine, guilt-ridden, confesses to having helped frame Smith. Smith’s marathon speech could just as easily have been set in front of the Capitol Building. Plotwise, it would have made no difference.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a terrific and very entertaining film. It’s something everybody should see and pay close attention to, especially some members of Congress and the media.