The clumsy, politically motivated attempt to prosecute President Donald Trump reflects the true values of the United States’ governing class. So suggests a classic film that inadvertently, yet eerily, characterizes our current national political melodrama.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which premiered in 1939 and stars Jimmy Stewart, tells the story of a young, idealistic Senator whom the entrenched political Establishment tries to destroy for exposing its graft. That movie, directed by Frank Capra, could easily describe the battles pitting Trump against the “deep state,” pitting Big Pharma and its operatives against an increasingly sick population, and pitting Joe Biden and his “woke” allies against the average American struggling because of their policies.
Since the film never mentions specific political parties, its message becomes all the more powerful.
The movie starts with the death of a junior Senator from an unnamed prairie state. That senator participated in a conspiracy to manipulate an appropriations bill for public works that included a dam for his state. Members of the state’s political machine, using false names, were buying the land surrounding the proposed dam. Once the bill passed, they would sell the land to the government for a tidy profit.
Leading that conspiracy is the machine’s boss, Jim Taylor (played by Edward Arnold), who owns virtually anything and anyone worth owning, including such politicians as the late Senator. The state’s senior Senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a member of the machine despite his elegant facade of integrity, wrote the bill.
The weak governor, Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee), another machine puppet, feels pressure from the voters to appoint a reformer for the open Senate seat, and pressure from the unpopular Taylor to appoint one of his cronies. But Hopper chooses Jefferson Smith (Stewart), leader of the Boy Rangers, a group similar to the Boy Scouts. Smith fills two demands: He’s extremely popular in the state, and naive enough not to challenge the machine.
Smith is “a young patriot” who “recites Lincoln and Jefferson,” said Paine, who worked with Smith’s father, a crusading editor of a small newspaper, before becoming a Senator. The “young patriot,” for his part, reveres Paine.
That patriotism emerges energetically as soon as Smith arrives in Washington. Mesmerized by the Capitol dome, he boards a sightseeing bus that tours all of the city’s major historic landmarks. The Lincoln Memorial especially captivates Smith, who spends five hours absorbing American history before heading for his office.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so thrilled in my whole life,” Smith said.
But Washington’s smug politicians, staff members and reporters view Smith as an ignorant rube, a tool who doesn’t know he’s a tool. They mock his rural background, love of nature and lack of sophistication. Undaunted, Smith writes a bill to create a national boys’ camp to “get the poor kids off the streets for a few months every summer and let them learn something about nature, American ideals,” he said. Contributions from boys would fund the project, and the boys could donate no more than 10 cents.
While talking with his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), a cynic who despises her own cynicism, Smith elaborates.
“Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books,” he said. “Men should hold it up in front of them every single day and say, ‘I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t. I can, and my children will.’ Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”
Unbeknownst to him, however, Smith wants to put his camp on the same land where the machine wants its dam. But Saunders, disgusted with how the machine is manipulating the decent Smith, tells him about the proposed graft. When Smith asks Paine about the bill and about Taylor, the machine goes to work.
Paine uses Senate protocol to accuse Smith of using legislation for personal profit — exactly what Paine and his confederates are doing — and calls for an investigation that could lead to Smith’s expulsion. At the investigation, witnesses lie under oath, including Hopper and Paine, and produce forged documents with Smith’s forged signature.
When Smith is called to testify, the horrified young Senator leaves the room and prepares to leave town. But first, he stops at the Lincoln Memorial, where Saunders finds him disillusioned and broken.
“What are you going to believe in when a man like Paine, Sen. Joseph Paine, gets up and swears that I’ve been robbing kids of nickels and dimes, a Senator I’ve admired and worshipped my entire life?” Smith asks rhetorically.
“Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines,” Saunders replied. “So did every man who tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop them.”
Saunders then coached Smith into staging a filibuster to tell his side of the story and forestall the expulsion vote. In response, Taylor calls the editor of the leading newspaper in his state’s capital and orders him to “keep everything Smith says or any other pro-Smith stuff coming from Washington out of all of our newspapers and out of all the others you can line up in the state,” he said.
The boss also ordered the editor to sabotage distribution of “those broken-down opposition papers that don’t want to play ball with us,” to smear Smith as a “criminal” who is “blocking a relief bill, starving the people” and to purchase “every minute you can get of every two-watt radio station in the state,” he said. “I don’t care what it costs! Pay out!”
“Smith Talks. The People Starve,” blared one poster.
“Jailbird Defies Nation,” roared the main headline of one newspaper article, with a sub-headline reading, ” ‘Let the poor starve,’ he shouts.”
And so on, with opinion makers falling in line.
But Saunders retaliates by encouraging the Boy Rangers’ newspaper, Boy Stuff, to print Smith’s side. Without the heavy machinery of the established press, the boys print their news on hand presses, use wooden wagons to deliver editions to mailboxes, hand them to passers-by — and work to the point of exhaustion.
When the Taylor machine discovers this unexpected opposition, the sabotage turns violent.
Policemen use high-pressure water hoses to disperse demonstrators supporting Smith. A dapper thug slaps a boy in the face before his gang takes papers from the Rangers’ clubhouse. One truck swerves into a wagon, narrowly missing a boy and some adults waiting for a streetcar. Another truck swerves into the driver’s side of a car with a half-dozen boys mustering support for Smith.
With Smith hoarse and exhausted following nearly 24 hours of filibustering, Paine again manipulates procedure to present baskets and bundles of letters and telegrams, all opposing Smith. The senator staggers toward the correspondence, sorts it with an exasperated expression on his face, then quietly and poignantly reminds Paine that the corrupt Senator once fought with his father for lost causes.
Finally, Smith turns to the rest of the Senate.
“You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked,” he shouts. “I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me. Somebody….”
Smith then faints. Paine rushes out of the chamber and tries to kill himself. When somebody stops him, Paine runs back into the chamber, declares that Smith was right and admits his own guilt.
So how does all this apply to today?
Compare the Taylor machine’s lust for graft with the Biden family’s behavior toward Chinese and Ukrainian firms. Or with the efforts of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and affiliated parties to promote and profit from a dangerous COVID-19 vaccine.
Compare the machine’s attempts to smear Smith and to destroy anybody counteracting its narrative with the attempt by traditional and social media — with apparent help from government agencies — to smear Trump and his supporters, anybody inquiring into the Bidens’ business behavior, anybody questioning the validity of the 2020 Presidential election, anybody opposing “woke” ideology or anybody questioning the efficacy of COVID-19 policies and vaccines.
Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey would salivate with jealousy at the machine’s brutal effectiveness.
For that matter, compare Smith with Trump.
Certainly, Trump is no naive ingenue. No wealthy developer who has to deal with New York City’s politics can afford to be. And, more certainly, Trump brings baggage Smith never owned.
Nevertheless, the Taylor machine’s attempt to smear and frame Smith to protect itself bears more than a passing resemblance to the Establishment’s attempt to smear and frame Trump through any ostensibly legal means possible. That includes politically motivated impeachment, the “nothing burger” of Robert Muller’s investigation and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s attempts to prosecute Trump.
Moreover, compare Smith’s tenacity and dedication to American ideals to Trump’s, baggage or no baggage.
One young woman commented in January on YouTube about the film. That comment succinctly and powerfully summarizes the movie’s relationship to today’s headlines.
“I’m 19 going on 20 & this movie really scared me, for good reason! The politics, politicians, & media were slimy back then; it’s 100 times worse now with the advances in technology, social media, & increasing power.”