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.”
Allen Peterson says
Great article! Years ago I read Frank Capra’s autobiography “The Name Above the Title” which is one of the best and most entertaining histories of old Hollywood ever written (it pays that Capra wrote movie scripts during the silent era, since he knows how to tell a good story). While “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was popular with the general public, it was NOT so popular with some of Washington’s politicians.
The film was shown to Congress and at the party afterwards, many “public servants” were INSULTED by the very idea that political corruption was to be found amongst them. If I remember correctly, one drunken politician even tried to punch Capra in the face!
You are correct that Trump is no naive ingenue, yet you are also correct that the forces arrayed against him are quite similar to those who were arrayed against Smith. The parallels are there for all to see. In both cases an innocent man is being railroaded by a corrupt bunch of bureaucrats. Also, the biased “legacy” media – much like the media in the film – have attempted to destroy Trump by their endless lies and half-truths, while alternative media (like Front Page) has been trying to get the truth out to as many people as possible.
David Ray says
Another movie from the time . . .
It also epitomizes a young patriot & unabashed Christian who is hesitant to take life. In the end, he does something extraordinary in WWI; he takes 132 Germans captive single handedly.
The two German machine-gun nests didn’t get him . . , the IRS did.
He won the adulation of his comrades & a grateful nation, but the IRS – not so much.
They went after him. He was audited endlessly, which induced an aneurysm. He didn’t survive the 2nd one.
That’s how the IRS rewards national heros.
These days they target any & all that have a hint of Tea Party, Patriot, MAGA, or a parent attending a schoolboard meeting. (Needless to say, the FBI, OSHA, DC cops, regulatory boards, the courtier press, etc do the same.)
So if your a patriot, keep your head down, because though these be different times, we have the same chickenshit leftist “woke” scum . . . seeking our destruction.
Down Easter says
What the IRS did to York would be a great movie.
“So how does all this apply to today?”
No explanations were needed. We are out here living the madness.
Being force fed lie upon lie upon lie.
And our side? The mob is drowning out the VERY FEW voices of opposition.
THESE ARE PERILOUS, EVIL TIMES!
It is my belief that what is going to solve this mess is…
When SHE, HER steps up and steps out of the shadows to reclaim her gender the ship will begin to right itself.
We can see and smell the rotten fruits of all the no balls / sackless Mr. Smiths.
Men… we have failed utterly in our main mission… to protect those we love, the defenseless little ones.
Maybe it’s time to give the WOMEN a chance to fix this?
Could they possible do any worse?
Spurwing Plover says
Look at the Netherlands see how their beating back the Globalists and their sinister plans we need t learn from them and reelect Trump and drive out Bragg, Sores and Gates and the CFR as well
THX 1138 says
“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.”
There you have it, the root of totalitarian government. The road to totalitarian government is paved with good intentions. In a free country the government can not pass a bill to create a national boy’s camp.
The American ideal? Complete and total SELF-RELIANCE, no financial reliance on government — NONE. No government “social safety net”. No public schools — NONE. If the citizens want or need something, be it schools, libraries, hospitals, roads, streets, railroads, highways, airports, or dams, they pay for them themselves, out of their own pockets, individually, or in voluntary associations of free individuals, or they ask for voluntary charity. That’s SELF-RELIANCE — the American Ideal.
THX 1138 says
“The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.” – Ayn Rand
THX 1138 says
I made a mistake when I wrote “no social safety net”. I should have written “no GOVERNMENT social safety net”
In a free society there would of course be social safety nets everywhere, in every neighborhood, town, city, and state created voluntarily by the free citizens. In a free capitalist society the economy would be booming and always innovative. Even today when Americans are being crushed by government taxation and inflation websites like “Go Fund Me” and many charities like “St.Jude’s Hospital”, etc. do not lack donations.
Imagine how much more good will, kindness, charitableness, generosity, and voluntary social safety nets, there would be in a truly free America.