Skip to comments.Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart? (Dems invoking Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are wrong)
Posted on 05/23/2005 12:18:14 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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.
[The filibuster begins] President of Senate: The Chair recognizes... Senator Smith! Jefferson Smith: Thank you, sir. Clarissa Saunders: Diz, here we go. Jefferson Smith: Well, I guess the gentlemen are in a pretty tall hurry to get me out of here. The way the evidence has piled up against me, I can't say I blame them much. And I'm quite willing to go, sir, when they vote it that way - but before that happens I've got a few things I want to say to this body. I tried to say them once before, and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I'd like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I'm not going to leave this body until I do get them said. Senator Joseph Paine: Mr. President, will the Senator yield? President of Senate: Will the Senator yield? Jefferson Smith: No, sir, I'm afraid not, no sir. I yielded the floor once before, if you can remember, and I was practically never heard of again. No sir. And we might as well all get together on this yielding business right off the bat, now. [laughter from the gallery] Jefferson Smith: Now, I had some pretty good coaching last night, and I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order or a personal privilege, that I can hold this floor almost until doomsday. In other words, I've got a piece to speak, and blow hot or cold, I'm going to speak it. Senator Joseph Paine: Will the Senator yield? President of Senate: Will Senator Smith yield? Jefferson Smith: Yield how, sir? Senator Joseph Paine: Will he yield for a question? Jefferson Smith: For a question, alright.
Senator Joseph Paine: I wish to ask my distinguished colleague, has he one scrap of evidence to add now to the defense he did not give and could not give at that same hearing? Jefferson Smith: I have no defense against forged papers! Senator Joseph Paine: The Committee ruled otherwise! The gentleman stands guilty, as charged. And I believe I speak for every member when I say that no one cares to hear what a man of his condemned character has to say about any section of any legislation before this House. President of Senate: Order, order, gentlemen. Jefferson Smith: Mr. President, I stand guilty as FRAMED! Because section 40 is graft! And I was ready to say so, I was ready to tell you that a certain man in my state, a Mr. James Taylor, wanted to put through this dam for his own profit. A man who controls a political machine! And controls everything else worth controlling in my state. Yes, and a man even powerful enough to control Congressmen - and I saw three of them in his room the day I went up to see him! Senator Joseph Paine: Will the Senator yield? Jefferson Smith: No, sir, I will not yield! And this same man, Mr. James Taylor, came down here and offered me a seat in this Senate for the next 20 years if I voted for a dam that he knew, and I knew, was a fraud. But if I dared to open my mouth against that dam, he promised to break me in two.
[after all the other Senators walk out] Jefferson Smith: Oh, Mr. President, we seem to be alone. I, I'm not complaining for a social reason; it's just, I think it'd be a pity if these gentlemen missed any of this, and... [Clarissa starts waving from the visitors gallery, and making hand signals] Jefferson Smith: And, uh... [he grabs the rule book] Jefferson Smith: I, I call the chair's attention to... to, uh... Rule 5 of the Standing Rules of the Senate, Section... Section 3. "If it shall be found that a quorum is not present, a majority of the Senators present" - and that looks like me - uh, uh, "may direct the Sergeant-at-Arms to request, and if necessary compel, the attendance of the absent Senators." Well, Mr. President, I so direct.
Jefferson Smith: [His voice very hoarse] 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!
Some facts about MSGTW:
Bitterly denounced by Washington insiders angry at its allegations of corruption, yet banned by fascist states in Europe who were afraid it showed that democracy works.
The real Senator from Montana walked out of the screening he attended in disgust.
The Washington press corps were highly indignant at the way they were portrayed in the film. Consequently a great deal of the initial reviews from the capital were very negative. (One of their chief objections was that the film made them all out to be drinking too much.)
I'm pretty sure that when Savings And Loans were going bankrupt, Democrats were making equally bogus comparisons to It's A Wonderful Life.
This just goes to show that when someone doesn't know what they're talking about, they're willing to say anything. This is the case with the Senator from NJ. Lautenberg is a bombastic gasbag that's too stupid to realize we're way ahead of him, and won't be blustered and fooled by such a ridiculous prop as a movie shot of Jimmy Stewart in MSGTW.
It might work on little old blue haired democrats, but the rest of us can see the comparison is bogus, and he's trying to manipulate public opinion.
Basically they are like Jimmy Stewart's two students in Rope.
Personally I think the filibuster should be returned to it's original implementation, where you have to actually do it. The Democrats don't have the strength or courage to actually do it day and night.
No need for the nuclear option. Just bring back the true and filibuster as it was intended. It came at a high price as it should. The public would love it and the Dims would be unable to claim we're departing from the constitution or tradition.
Great post! Thanks.
"Anyone care to point out a single DemoRat who talked himself hoarse (even if he had to take some flu infection to reach that state)?"
If it ever did happen, it was in a rat effort to keep Blacks on the evil donkey's plantation.
Well, the idea of any Senator having a conscience is laughable on its face...
Well, my Senator, walking corpse, Lausenburg strikes again. Speaking of Star Wars references, did you ever notice that Frank kind of resembles Senator Palpatine? North Carolina is looking better and better.
LOL....... and, if I may add, "somewhat along those lines".........Ted Kennedy is barely conscious.
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