Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't Make a Scene: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Gospel According to William Jefferson Smith, Senator

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The Story:  You can't make these things up.  Yes, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy* (R-CA) tried to influence the Tea Party members of the Republican party to support John Boehner's debt ceiling plan by showing them that scene from The Town, that demonstrates "no questions asked" loyalty between two bank-robbers, one of them a sadistic sociopath.  Forget about the "sadistic sociopath" stuff, and forget that they're bank-robbers—we'll let that slide (they're Congressmen, after all, so it's not much of a stretch). "No questions asked" loyalty is not the gospel I want a U.S. Congressman to preach. It implies blind acceptance and no thinking allowed. It also implies "lock-step" troop gathering, and that always makes me nervous. There's only a split-second difference in cadence between "lock-step" and "goose-step."

McCarthy can be forgiven, I think.  He is from California, and movies are one of their biggest exports (that and avocados).  But, there's always a problem when politicians and movies mix.  Sometimes the message gets a little ... confused.  Patton inspired Nixon to invade Cambodia during the Viet Nam war. Our Hollywood President, Ronald Reagan, evoked scenes from movies as if they were reality. And when one Republican Presidential candidate was asked if there were any movies he'd recommend seeing, he mentioned The Cider House Rules, no doubt because he'd heard from a pro-life group that it was about an abortionist who saved kids, but hadn't seen it to know that it was also about incest and child abuse.  So much for "family values." 

Now, were it me...instead of Congressman McCarthy...I would have slipped another scene from another movie to inspire his fellows...and I wouldn't even have to splurge on the Kool-Aid they no doubt served at the event.  It's this scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is still as fresh and pertinent as it was when it was made in 1939—I remember seeing it for the first time after the Watergate Scandal broke and was immediately struck by how the issues of Government and corruption, influence peddling and opinion generation were dealt with in such a forthright and direct manner and how it spoke just as clearly nearly forty years later.  It also deals with "basic truths" that are the cornerstones on which the country was based, and always seem to get lost in competing ideologies and short-term fixes.  And "the rules."  I've always liked how Smith has to go through the torturous process to learn the rules of Order in the Senate, which can obscure the one basic rule that governs civility and public service.  It's mentioned in this scene (although most people seem to forget it outside of a catechism class).

We started this series of "Gospels" from movies on July 4th, supplanting a scene from ...Smith... that we usually toss up here.  It's doubly important...given the insanity that this country has just gone end it with another one.

The Set-Up:  Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is a political appointment to a seat for a Senator who has died in office.  The son of the friend of the state's other Senator, Paine (Claude Rains), Smith's appointment is approved by the political machine of that state and allowed to go through without challenge.  But, conflicts arise when Smith offers a bill to raise funds for a boy's camp on the site of a public works project (buried in an appropriations bill) that will make a lot of money for the Machine (run by Taylor, played by Edward Arnold) and its cronies.  Confronted with Smith's opposing bill, Taylor, with the other Senator's aid, begins a smear campaign to run Smith out of office, and Smith (with the help of Paine's sympathetic aide, Jean Arthur) takes the floor of the Senate to filibuster the bill and talk directly to the people of his State, far removed from the echo-chamber of Washington politics.  That's where we are.  We'll let The Press take the summary from here.


H. V. KALTENBORN is seen again, broadcasting.

KALTENBORN  Senator Smith has now talked for twenty-three hours and sixteen minutes.

KALTENBORN  It is the most unusual and spectacular thing in the Senate annals. One lone and simple American holding the greatest floor in the land. What he lacked in experience he's made up in fight.

KALTENBORN  But those tired Boy Ranger legs are buckling; bleary eyes, voice gone, he can't go on much longer and all official Washington is here to be in on the kill.

In the SENATE PRESS GALLERY, Saunders and Diz are seen.

JEFFERSON'S VOICE No, sir, there's no compromise with truth. That's all I got up on this floor to say--when was it--

JEFFERSON'S VOICE ...a year ago, it seems like.

SAUNDERS Diz, I'm afraid. Terrible things are happening. I've got to stop him.
DIZ They're listening to him. Anything might happen now.

JEFFERSON Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that is up on top of this Capitol dome--that lady that stands for liberty...

JEFFERSON ...take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something...

JEFFERSON ...and you won't just see scenery--

JEFFERSON'll see the whole parade of what man's carved out for himself after centuries of fighting, and fighting for something better than just jungle law,

JEFFERSON ...fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet--free and decent, like he was created--

JEFFERSON matter what his race, color or creed.

JEFFERSON That's what you'll see.


JEFFERSON ...and it is not too late because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you or me, or anything else.

JEFFERSON Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here. You just have to see them.

JEFFERSON ...again.

PAINE(rising at his desk) Mr. President,

PAINE ...will the Senator yield for a question?

PRESIDENT Will Senator Smith yield to his colleague?

JEFFERSON Yes, sir, I yield for a question.

PAINE The gentleman has said repeatedly that he is speaking to the people of his State. He has been waiting, as he so fancifully puts it, for them to come marching here in droves. Would the gentleman be interested in knowing what those people have to say?


SAUNDERS Here it comes, Diz.

On the FLOOR again:

JEFFERSON Yes, sir, you bet I would.

PAINE Mr. President...

PAINE ...have I permission to bring into this Chamber evidence of the response from my State?

PRESIDENT Is there objection?

(There is none)

You may proceed, Senator.

PAINE Page boys!

Now a number of page boys enter, carrying down and placing before the President's ROSTRUM many WIRE BASKETS, filled with telegrams.

The view picks out SAUNDERS.

SAUNDERS I can't stand it, Diz. I can't stand to see him hurt like this.
A MAN Public opinion made to order.
DIZ Yeah, Taylor made.

SENATOR PAINE walks down and points to the baskets.

PAINE There it is, there's the gentleman's answer.

PAINE Telegrams, five thousand of them, demanding that he yield the floor. I invite the Senate to read them. I invite my colleague to read them. The people's answer to Mr. Jefferson Smith.

SAUNDERS (seen getting up and screaming) Stop, Jeff, stop!

(Her voice is lost in the tumult)

JEFFERSON has gone wearily to the baskets. He seizes handfulls
of telegrams at random and glances at them. He sags in despair, almost falling.

JEFFERSON (with effort) I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine.

JEFFERSON  All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does.

JEFFERSON He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for...

JEFFERSON ...and he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them.

JEFFERSON Because of just one plain, simple rule, "Love thy neighbor,"

JEFFERSON and in this world today...

JEFFERSON ...full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You knew that rule, Mr. Paine, and I loved you for it, just as my father did. And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others.

JEFFERSON Yes, you'd even die for them, like a man we both know, Mr. Paine.

JEFFERSON You think I'm licked.

JEFFERSON You all think I'm licked.

JEFFERSON Well, I'm not licked and...

JEFFERSON ...I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these...

JEFFERSON ...and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody'll listen to me...

JEFFERSON --some--

The chamber whirls in front of Jeff's eyes--and he pitches
forward to the floor.

People get to their feet automatically all over the house--and there is dead silence except for

SAUNDERS, who utters one shriek as she gets to her feet--then stands unable to move.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Words Sidney Buchman

Pictures by Joseph Walker and Frank Capra

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is available on Sony Home Video.

Send one to your representative.

*  No relation to the late actor Kevin McCarthy, who starred in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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