Blame It on Capra
Is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to blame for current Senate gridlock?
By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat, 2-24-10
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As the latest issue of Time magazine spells out, our government is frozen because Senate Republicans are playing a game, blocking virtually all important bills that the Democratic majority wants to pass, especially much-needed health-care reform.
That such a political strategy is cruelly un-public-spirited in its refusal to work with a majority to solve problems is beside the point. As Time explains, the Republican policy of being the “party of no” worked during the Clinton administration — when it pioneered it — and could work again. The public tends to get frustrated “at Congress” and vote out the party in power.
In this case it would be Democrats, since President Obama took office with a 2008 electoral landslide and Democrats until recently had a 60-40 majority in the Senate. You can already see that kind of reaction reflected in Republican Scott Brown’s election to a vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, which now gives Republicans 41 seats.
But wait a minute. You might wonder why the Republicans can stall the Senate when the party only had 40 out of 100 seats. It’s because it can threaten at any moment to “go nuclear” — use the threat of a filibuster (non-stop talking on the Senate floor) to tie up any vote. Democrats must have at least 60 votes to stop it through cloture, which raises its own problems.
All in all, the use of the filibuster constitutes “democracy abuse” — historically, racist Southern Democrats shamefully invoked it for decades to block civil-rights legislation, even an anti-lynching law. (There are occasional cases of Progressives like Wayne Morse using it, too.)
So why doesn’t an incensed American public demand the Senate reform or eliminate filibuster use? It is not mandated by the Constitution.
I blame the movies. Specifically, I blame Frank Capra, Hollywood’s great populist director who won three Academy Awards for helming 1934’s It Happened One Night, 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You.
In 1939, he made a classic called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster wrote its screenplay, with assistance from Myles Connolly. In one of American cinema’s most famous performances, Jimmy Stewart plays a grown-up Boy Scout (an adult leader of the Boy Rangers, actually) named Jefferson Smith who is appointed to the Senate by a corrupt party organization in an unnamed state after the incumbent has died.
The governor’s kids push for him, and the state party thinks he’ll be too naïve to challenge its priorities. But he winds up filibustering its attempt to get a ruinous dam approved on the state site he wants for a boy’s camp. A vicious state party leader, a newspaper publisher, planned the dam.
In retrospect, by making the filibuster a symbol for good-guy-goes-it-alone heroism, Mr. Smith has been as ruinous to American politics as that damn dam would be to that state. But its reputation in the public mind is something different.
The title has become an enduring catchphrase, used to describe the experiences awaiting well-meaning Americans who try to make things better in the snake pit that is Washington. That presumes, of course, that all Washington is a snake pit — needing a good enema-like filibuster now and then to clear out the poisons.
As such, the film’s legacy is anti-intellectual — it fails to educate about how the Senate can be used and abused to serve various agendas, progressive and reactionary. Instead, it reduces all Washington to Smith (good) and Senate (bad).
The other senator from Smith’s state, the corrupt charmer Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), sums that view up succinctly when he confronts the newcomer: “You’ve been living in a boy’s world all your life. This is a man’s world. You’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, like your rubbers.”
No less a patron saint of American broadcast journalism than H.V. Kaltenborn, a radio broadcaster who courageously covered the Spanish Civil War for CBS, appears in Mr. Smith (playing himself) to cheer Smith on as the filibuster begins.
“Half of 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,” he tells his radio audience. In case that’s not enough hyperbole, he adds, “In the diplomatic gallery are envoys of two dictatorial powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home, democracy in action.”
Democracy in action? Give me a break!
The most famous filibusterer in the Senate up to 1939 had been Louisiana’s Huey Long, hardly the best case this country could make for profiles in political courage. And during the 1960s, it took a veritable revolution in the streets to finally break the Southern racists’ power, when the Senate managed to approve cloture and pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
At the time, it took two-thirds of the Senate to do that, and Republicans joined with non-Southern Democrats. In 1975, the Senate reduced the cloture requirement to a still-imposing three-fifths of membership. Today, the filibuster has become so ingrained as a tool of obstruction that the mere threat ties up the Senate. You don’t need an actual one to occur. It creates dysfunction, not free speech. Mr. Smith got it all wrong.
Further, Mr. Smith cheats. The movie’s conflict isn’t really about national politics at all, so its claim to American topicality is faux. The Senate in the film is merely background for an us-versus-them tale about an imaginary corrupt state. It’s not really daring for its time; it’s more an escape from Depression Era concerns than a confrontation of them. It’s no Sullivan’s Travels.
There is one unintentionally haunting scene, however. When pro-Smith citizens try to march in their state, the police — upholding the corrupt power structure — turn fire hoses on them. It’s an unintended reminder of how Americans had to stand up to the tyranny of the filibuster in the 1960s.
And it could foretell what might have to happen again, as long as Mr. Smith’s lie about the filibuster as “democracy in action” endures.