Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) is an absolute classic. It tells the story of a young and naïve Senator who arrives Washington eager to visit its monuments, but who soon discovers that the nation’s leaders aren’t living up to the famous words carved into them.
The story is driven by Senator Jefferson Smith’s discovery of the corrupt inner workings of his state’s political machine, a machine headed in part by a friend of his deceased father and one of Smith’s childhood heroes – the senior Senator from his state, Senator Joseph Paine.
Prior to this discovery, Mr. Smith travels by train to Washington, D.C. together with Senator Paine, and the two talk about the fate of Smith’s deceased father:
Mr. Paine: ”He and his little four-page paper … against that mining syndicate. All to defend the right of one small miner who stuck to his claim. They tried everything. Bribery … intimidation. And then….
Mr. Smith: ”Ma found him slumped over his desk that morning. Shot in the back. … But, I suppose Mr. Paine, when a fellow bucks up against a big organization like that, one man by himself can’t get very far can he?”
Mr. Paine: “No.”
The scene sets the stage for what the young Senator would experience in the Senate.
After a short while in Washington, Mr. Smith decides to start working on his own piece of legislation, and as a former Boy Scout leader, he decides to create a camp in his state where kids from all across the country can come and spend their summers. Coincidentally, Senator Paine is in the process of collecting the final votes for a large dam project at the very same spot of Smith’s campsite. In order to get Smith out-of-the-way, Paine uses his powerful political machine to attack Smith with all its might, and Smith’s days in the Senate seem numbered.
Embattled, angry and betrayed, Mr. Smith storms out of the Senate and runs to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His secretary Clarissa Saunders follows him, and they sit and talk (read it, it’s worth it):
Saunders: “Well… I see by the papers you certainly got to be a Senator.”
Smith: “You sure had the right ideas about me Saunders. You told me to go back home and keep filling those kids full of hooey. Yeah, just a simple guy you said, still wet behind the ears, lot of junk about American ideals. Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of junk alright.”
Saunders: “Now look, Senator.”
Smith: “I don’t know, it’s, it’s a whole new world to me. What are you gonna believe in? When a man like Paine, Senator Joseph Paine, gets up and swears that I’ve been robbing kids of nickels and dimes. A man I’ve admired and worshipped all my life. I don’t know. A lot of fancy words surround this town, some of them are carved in stone, some of them, I guess the Taylor’s and Paine’s put them up there so suckers like me could read ’em. And then when you find out what men actually do, well I’m getting out of this town so fast it’ll waive them all of words and the monuments and the whole rotten show.”
Saunders: “I see. When you get home, what are you gonna tell those kids?
Smith: “Well I’ll tell them the truth, might as well find it out now as later.”
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?'”
Smith: “Oh what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies.”
Saunders: “Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines, so did every other man who 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, 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 them out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I.”
Smith: “What, do what Saunders?”
Saunders: “You just make up your mind you’re not gonna quit and I’ll tell you what. Been thinking about it all the way back here. It’s a 40 foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.”
Smith: “…… Clarissa, where can we get a drink?”
Saunders: “Now you’re talking. Come on over to my place.”
As they walk away, Mr. Smith waves to the statue of Lincoln.
Lincoln will always be sitting at his memorial, waiting for people with “plain, decent, every day common rightness” to come along and represent the interests of the American people. Lincoln will always be waiting for someone who can “see his job and sail into it”. He’s waiting for idealists like Mr. Smith who won’t give up when the going gets tough.
Importantly though, Jefferson Smith didn’t run for the Senate – he was appointed by people who thought they could control him. What Washington needs, then, is someone running for Congress who won’t be controlled by the financiers of his or her campaign. Washington needs someone who’ll do what they think is best for America, without taking into consideration what’s needed to get reelected. Washington, Lincoln, and the American people need nothing less than a miracle.
In the end, Mr. Smith’s adventures in Washington are a work of fiction, but then “idealism” is nothing more than an exercise in lifting your thoughts “up off the ground” with the odds stacked against you – and as Clarissa told Jeff; “Odds against them didn’t stop those men, they were fools that way.” Washington needs fools with faith.
Postscript: In the political satire “Bob Roberts” (1992), a freelance journalist named Bugs Raplin draws a line back to the famous Mr. Smith character: “There are no Mr. Smith’s in Washington. Mr. Smith has been bought. Just a bunch of deal makers. No visionaries.”
If nothing else, Mr. Smith will always be a fabled and well-known character tailor-made for Hollywood comparisons of how politicians and their sausage making differs from Mr. Smith’s ideals and his “every day common rightness.”
Tags: 2010 midterms, Abraham Lincoln, Bob Roberts, Bugs Raplin, Campaign finance reform, Clarissa Saunders, Corruption, Every day common rightness, Fools with faith, Frank Capra, Idealism, Leadership, Lincoln Memorial, Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Naïvety, Political machine, Senator Jefferson Smith, Senator Joseph Paine, Washington D.C.