Jimmy Stewart playing Mr. Smith stands at the top of the Lincoln Memorial with a briefcase, the reflecting pool and Washington Monument spread out behind him.
Jimmy Stewart in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' (Credit: Vox)

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A Day for Democracy

Today, September 15, 2022, marks the celebration of “Democracy Day” in the United States and around the world. As it happens, “Constitution Day,” the effective birthday of our founding document closely follows just two days later, on September 17.

In honor of these two observances, we ought to talk a bit about our democracy. As you’re perusing the news today, you’ll likely see many stories on the subject, via Democracy Day’s massive roster of media partners. As we tend to do in this forum, I’m inclined to tackle the issue through the lens of a film, one that is without question part of the rural canon: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

A simplistic remembrance of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” would call it a film about a filibuster. Its iconic third act revolves around a dramatic filibuster to be sure, and this is probably the part of the film that lingers most in the popular memory. For many folks, Mr. Smith may in fact be their first frame of reference for how to recognize, understand, or explain the traditional filibuster as a concept in our political system.

But to remember Mr. Smith as just a film about a filibuster undersells its broader, ongoing relevance and value.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

YouTube video
A modern remake of the ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ trailer. You can find the original trailer here.

Our democracy is facing many especially urgent threats of late, but an astute follower of history or politics might conclude that many of them are not in fact new. Much of what we’re seeing could be described as the product of forces that have been percolating or recurring for years and across generations.

I find one under-appreciated ingredient in this complex stew is our society’s general attitude toward politicians, as a professional group. Throughout my life, I’ve heard countless variations on the axiom, “All politicians are crooks.” It never sat well with me, in part because I could point to numerous politicians, elected to state or local office, throughout my extended family tree. Beyond that personal connection though, the sentiment always struck me as a show of indolence and self-loathing above all, given our ability to help choose the so-called crooks in these positions.

To give a sense of the time-worn quality of this attitude, Mr. Smith was ably riffing on the same notions all the way back in 1939. Our protagonist, Jefferson Smith, is a wholesome boy scout leader tapped by a western governor to finish out the term of a recently deceased U.S. Senator. He arrives to Washington bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a set of lofty notions about passing legislation that will help America’s youth.

His idealism is grounded before long however, stopped headlong by the complex games of political horse-trading and outright corruption that have come to dominate the halls of power. By the end, through that iconic filibuster, Senator Smith is put in a position to take on the corruption and fight for a renewed spirit of public service in politics.

The illustrated poster shows a panorama of democratic scenes from the halls of congress, as well as the heads of the lead male and female roles.
Promotional poster for ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

In this regard, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” does not refute a claim that politicians are crooks. To tell its story, it relies rather heavily on presenting our capitols and court houses as places that do not lack for vice. This is further underscored by the way Senator Smith arrives in the narrative; he is not elected by any voters but is instead appointed by the governor through a combination of random chance, tireless support from his boy scout troop, and a belief that he’ll be an easy mark for the more experienced, self-serving senators to bend to their whims.

I recall a social media post I saw making the rounds sometime in the mid-2010s, amid the beginnings of the Trump campaign and eventual presidency. It went something like this: Netflix’s “House of Cards” is the political system we fear we have. “The West Wing” is the political system we hope we have. And HBO’s “Veep” is the political system we actually have.

Whatever truth holds up in that idea, it all descends from Mr. Smith, in a deeper way than you might realize.

Founding Myths

In 2017, as part of my pursuit of a master’s degree in public policy, I took a course on the U.S. Congress, one that was regarded for turning out numerous future congressmen and congresswomen. I shared that classroom with at least two people who would go on to be elected to congress, and one who still holds their office today. I can’t claim that either of them comes even close to the character of Jefferson Smith, but I do recall where our lessons on congress began.

On one of the first days of class, we heard the story of Cincinnatus, a fabled Roman statesman and military leader. As the story was told to us, Cincinnatus was a humble farmer who was called upon to lead the republic. When his job was done, rather than holding on to power, he returned to his ploughs and resumed working his fields.

Our professor described this as an important part of the founding myth of American democracy and a lesson in civic virtue. Never mind the more complicated truth, which emerged recently when Britain’s Boris Johnson, departing the prime minister’s office amid corruption problems of his own, invoked Cincinnatus.

In Jefferson Smith we have an echo of the mythic version of the Cincinnatus tale: here is the homespun boy scout leader from out west, who leaves his troop when called upon, not in search of personal power, but instead to be of service to the nation. It reflects the deeply agrarian roots of our political culture. This somewhat romanticized, rural-inflected story recurs today, in any number of upstart, “outsider” candidates looking to shake up business as usual in Washington — many of whom, again, depending on your political disposition, appear far less appealing than Jefferson Smith.

This illustrated poster, which seems to have little to do with politics or democracy, shows Mr. Smith being adored by a number of women, as well as walking away hand-in-hand with one.
Promotional poster for ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ (Credit: IMDB)

At the end of the day, it would be a mistake to invoke “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to simply prove a point about “Washington,” or the “political elite,” or the cause of your outsider candidate of choice. Are all politicians crooks? It’s not ultimately a question the film cares about answering.

This being a production anchored by the partnership between director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is much more concerned with individual people and what they are capable of at their best. Like Capra and Stewart’s most iconic character, George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jefferson Smith is a reminder that our communities and our institutions turn on the ongoing presence and contributions of good people.

Of course corrupt senators (and governors and presidents) exist, just as there are Mr. Potters in towns and cities all across the country. But that’s not the story in and of itself. And it would be lazy and nihilistic to leave it there. The story is all about what happens next, and how we respond.

A still from the movie itself shows Mr. Smith in the chamber of congress surrounded by baskets heaped with paper, looking sticken as he holds many papers in each of his hands.
Credit: The American Film Institute

That unearths the real issue I had with the “All politicians are crooks” mantra, I think. So often it would appear as nothing more than a prelude to disengage, to dispute the whole enterprise, to dismiss any effort at pursuing political change for the better.

In the case of both George Bailey and Jefferson Smith, the viewer is left with no doubt that we should continue to engage. It is a worthy calling, perhaps the most worthwhile of all, to take on and overcome the bad stuff. Bedford Falls is worth the effort, and so is our democracy.

In drawing these conclusions, I’d note that “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” has undoubtedly been overshadowed by “It’s a Wonderful Life.” For its part, Mr. Smith’s ending is both looser and more abrupt, lacking the same punch as the indelible finale of its spiritual successor. Likewise, it doesn’t have the same ritual connection to our holiday calendar, getting play year after year during the Christmas season. But it begs the question, why not make Mr. Smith part of our civic calendar in a similar fashion?

Whether for Democracy Day, Constitution Day, or the Fourth of July, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” remains exceedingly watchable today, earnest and inspiring in equal measure. And to the challenges of the moment, it offers a timeless lesson on always holding fast to our place in the halls of power. Humble farmers, boy scout leaders, and country folk have a lot to offer in preserving our democracy, if they remember the model of Mr. Smith.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is available to rent or buy on disc and via digital media platforms.  

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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