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.
Predictably, the land for the camp happens to be on the same site where the Willow Creek Dam Project is supposed to be built, a corrupt program that will net the Taylor machine a huge amount of money.
Jim Taylor has a meeting with Smith where he reveals to Smith the truth behind the Willow Creek Dam project. He tells Smith that he can have anything he wants if he withdraws his bill for the Boy Rangers camp. He also tells Smith that Paine has been serving Taylor’s interests for decades. Smith is appalled, and his whole world comes crashing down when a shamefaced Paine admits that Taylor is telling the truth.
Smith plans to reveal to the Senate what he has learned, but is stopped cold when Paine accuses him of attempting to benefit financially from the Boy Rangers camp by having bought up the land. Perjury and forged documents are utilized in order to have a committee of the Senate recommend that Smith be expelled. Stunned, Smith does not know what to do until he has a conversation with Clarissa:
Clarissa Saunders: I see. When you get home, what are you gonna tell those kids?
Jefferson Smith: I’ll tell ’em the truth. Might as well find it out now as later.
Clarissa Saunders: I don’t think they’ll believe you, Jeff. You know, they’re liable to look up at you with hurt faces and say, ‘Jeff, what did you do? Quit? Didn’t you do something about it?’
Jefferson Smith: Well, what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies…
Clarissa Saunders: Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man whoever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against ’em 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. Their 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, every day, common rightness. And this country could use some of that. Yeah – so could the whole cock-eyed 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 ’em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I.
Jefferson Smith: What? Do what, Saunders?
Clarissa Saunders: You just make up your mind you’re not gonna quit and I’ll tell you what. I’ve been thinkin’ about it all the way back here. It’s a forty foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.
Jefferson Smith: Clarissa, where can we get a drink?
Clarissa Saunders: [slapping his knee] Now you’re talkin’!
The video at the beginning of the post shows the filibuster of Smith, in which he asks the Senate to give him time to gather evidence to clear his name. The filibuster is idealized as Democracy at its finest:
H.V. Kaltenborn: [Announcing on the radio] 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.
Heroic as Smith is, the movie portrays the filibuster as a failure. The Taylor machine is able to stop news of the filibuster from getting out in Smith’s home state, uses thug tactics to squelch any activity in the state in support of Smith, and “astroturfs” opposition to Smith, flooding the Senate with letters opposing Smith and his filibuster. The filibuster is a lost cause, as Smith acknowledges to Senator Paine just before Smith collapses from exhaustion on the Senate floor.
However, a funny thing about lost causes throughout history is how many of them prove not to be lost if their advocates have unending persistence and courage. Smith’s filibuster has been heard loudly and clearly by Senator Paine. Paine hears in Smith’s voice his own lost innocence and idealism. Although revealing the truth about the Taylor machine will destroy his career, that is precisely what Paine does. Throughout the film it has been made plain that Paine likes Smith and admires on some level his idealism. He dreads the fact that Smith learned the truth about him, and is appalled that he has to take the lead in destroying Smith. Men can be ensnared in evil for many years, but sometimes find their way out of it simply because the evil their life has become finally asks too much of them. So it is with Senator Paine who confesses in order to save Smith.
The reception of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was divided: the public loved it and the politicians hated it. Senator Alben W. Barkely, Senate majority leader and a future veep under Truman despised the film, saying that it made the Senate look like “the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record.”
Although domestic politicians often missed the pro-democracy message of the movie, foreign dictatorships understood this aspect of the film clearly: Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union all banned the film, which is probably the finest tribute this testament to democracy has ever received.
One line in the movie has always stayed with me. In the filibuster Smith says, “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!” That line is very true although there is a necessary predicate: you have to want to see them again.