TALK ABOUT PRESCIENCE
Talk about prescience. On my recent birthday, I got lucky. For the hundredth time, I got to see Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of the greatest movies of all time. Frank Capra, the phenomenal director, gets the credit for most of it. In this era of Trump, when the norms of this Republican Democracy are being corrupted again and again, this great film, produced in 1939, shows the potential for the downfall of our principles and reminds us how close this country is coming to a major meltdown and a change to a fascistic/totalitarian form of government.
The basic plot revolves around a corrupt boss in an unnamed state who wants to build an unnecessary dam. He is juxtaposed with a young man, an interim appointment to the Senate, who wants to build a boys’ camp in that same natural spot. We see all the Washington sights, with a particular emphasis on the statue of Abraham Lincoln and the truths embodied and printed on his memorial that, incidentally, was created very close to where I live in the Berkshires.
The movie really gets going when Mr. Smith, who has been framed and pilloried by the hometown boss, gets up on the floor to filibuster. He reads everything from the U.S. Constitution to all the other documents he can find. It is fascinating that in watching this film from so long ago, we can see the playbook of Donald Trump so many years later. Trump, of course, is morally corrupt. We are now hearing accusations that the president instructed the U.S. Ambassador to Britain to make sure an important match is played on a golf course that he owns. Trump denied that he did it, but he has lied so many times that many of us do not believe him.
It doesn’t stop there. In the film, the press in his home state is bought and paid for. While there are few examples of this “presstitution,” we are being treated, more and more, to examples of corrupt newspaper publishers who do what they are told by their owners or political bosses.
Then, too, we see the willingness of the Republican members of the Senate to go along with their powerful Republican top dogs. If they go against Trump, they risk alienating the powerful would-be dictator in the White House. If they act as profiles in courage and stand up for truth and decency, they may well lose their seats. You had better believe that even the minority is seldom heard at the volume that is required in this uber-serious time. Chuck Schumer does react to Trump’s obscenity but never at the volume that is needed or demanded at this time. Get it straight — this is the worst challenge that we have ever faced in this country. In the film, no Senator was willing to give Smith an even break. Now the Democrats are set to take the Senate but perhaps because they find themselves with a winning hand in November, they are not doing the right thing now.
So much of what is demanded of our Senators and House members is so totally reliant on money in the form of contributions that the voters aren’t given a chance, any more than what was happening in Smith’s home state in the film. Until we have decent campaign finance laws, we are in great danger of losing what the founding fathers laid out for us.
The irony of this film is that it was the filibuster that saved Smith and his state. Of course, the filibuster has always been seen as one of the great evils of the Senate and, in fact, has been used in a negative way by so many senators. Today it exists as more of a threat than something which we actually see used on a regular basis.
Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected].