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Popular Culture & Politics

Good and Evil in the U.S. Senate

Few movies made about the U.S. Congress have reached the status of a cinema classic, but director Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is most certainly of that caliber. Although the film was made more than sixty years ago, it is still acknowledged as one of the great movies of all time. The film’s appeal lies in Capra’s inspired direction, a brilliant lead performance by the late Jimmy Stewart, and a strong supporting cast.

But the film has also lasted because it touches on widely held views about the U.S. Congress. As the movie opens, Mr. Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), a naïve young man who leads an organization of children called the Boy Rangers, is appointed to fill the unexpired term of a deceased U.S. senator. Given his inexperience and naïveté, Mr. Smith is expected to give unquestioning support to the senior senator from his state.

Initially awed by Washington, Mr. Smith behaves as expected. Because he is truly an innocent, the new senator supports his colleague, completely unaware that he is being used by a corrupt political machine in his home state. Oblivious to the nature of politics, the idealistic Mr. Smith does not see that he is surrounded by crooked senators interested only in reelection. Even his only staffer, a holdover from the previous senator, is jaded and corrupted by congressional politics. That Mr. Smith has no idea how Congress works is, the movie assures us, proof of his goodness; it demonstrates that he has not been debased by Washington. Mr. Smith is simply too good and too honest for Washington.

Of course, eventually even Mr. Smith figures out what’s going on. When his plan to build a summer camp for children conflicts with the party bosses’ desire to build a dam, Mr. Smith takes a stand. Shocked by the corruption around him, he vows to fight the bosses and stand up for the children of the nation. Unable to convince Smith to go along with their scheme, the bosses frame Mr. Smith by forging his signature on land deeds that make it appear that he plans to make a profit off the camp.

Disgraced before the very children he sought to help, Mr. Smith prepares to depart Washington without a fight. At the last minute, however, his now loyal staffer persuades him to stay and fight. What follows is a classic confrontation between good and evil, as one man takes on the sinister forces of the U.S. Senate. Mr. Smith blocks Senate action to expel him by launching a filibuster. As his speaking marathon drags on, the children of America begin to rally around him, and even the cynical press corps begins to side with the heroic senator. Rather than the obstruction of majority will by a minority, the filibuster is described by the movie characters as “democracy’s finest show” and “democracy in action.”

In the end, of course, good triumphs. Mr. Smith collapses in the twenty-fourth hour of his filibuster, and the senior senator from his state, overcome with remorse, confesses to the scheme to debase Mr. Smith. Evil is defeated, but, according to the movie, it takes an outsider to restore goodness to Capitol Hill.

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