The true filibuster

On film

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is even more pertinent today than it was in 1939

February 26, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is more pertinent today then it was in 1939. It's also a more apt piece of programming for the AFI Silver this weekend than it would have been on Presidents Day.

No political tool has become more tainted than the filibuster. Especially after Scott Brown's election to the Senate, even political novices have grown comfortable with technical words like "supermajority" (the votes needed to override a filibuster). The filibuster has become the element of choice to block appointees or legislation. To many voters, it symbolizes everything anti-democratic in the workings of our government.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" reminds us of a time when the filibuster was viewed as "Democracy in action."

To revive movie-lovers' hazy memories: James Stewart portrays Jefferson Smith, the one honest man in the Senate. Know-it-alls snicker at Smith as " Honest Abe." He finds genuine inspiration, repeatedly, at the Lincoln Memorial. He hopes to draft a bill that will create a national youth camp. The great melodramatic trick that director Frank Capra and writer Sidney Buchman build into the plot is that Smith wants to establish this camp on a piece of land that (unbeknownst to him) has been targeted for a mammoth piece of graft.

The method he uses to set the record straight is the filibuster. But what Smith employs is a true filibuster. In the movie, real-life radio news commentator H.V. Kaltenborn describes it as "democracy's finest show .... the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand, providing, always, first, that he does not sit down, and second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking."

This is a far cry from what happens now. As lawyer and writer Thomas Geoghegan, the most vigorous and lucid opponent of the filibuster, explained recently to Amy Goodman, "the minority party pretend[s] or threaten[s] to filibuster ... and today it takes 60 votes, 60 senators, to cut off a pretend filibuster where no one is really filibustering." Geoghegan and others have said, "If we can't get rid of it .... let the filibuster be the filibuster." That way even mindless or petty obstructionists would have to get up on the Senate floor and hold their ground. Either they'll have their bluff called or, as Geoghegan says, "the country will be disgusted."

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" dramatizes a filibuster that's a test of character and values, not a procedure. Stewart's filibuster is inspiring rather than "disgusting." He speaks frankly and passionately about the need for openness and veracity in government, and "plain, ordinary, everyday kindness," and "a little looking out for the other fellow, too." He rises to eloquence when he says, "Great principles don't get lost. ... You just have to see them again."

The filibuster isn't the only reason "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" resonates today. When I saw the movie again this week, what struck me was the way the moviemakers depict Jefferson Smith as a one-man youth movement. His biggest base of support is his state's "Boy Rangers." New polls suggest that young voters have grown disillusioned with the youth wave of the last election and possibly with politics in general. What better movie to revive their spirit than this tale of a naive idealist who overcomes the cynics and corrupters in his own party?

When Smith's savvy, Baltimore-born secretary ( Jean Arthur) helps him draft the bill for his youth camp, he tells her, "Boys forget what their country means just by reading 'the land of the free' in history books. And they get to be men - they forget even more. Liberty's too precious to be buried in books. ... Men should hold it up in front of them every single day and say, 'I'm free to think and to speak.' "

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" proves that great movies are like great principles. "You just have to see them again."

If you go
"Mr Smith Goes to Washington" plays at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at the AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets are $6-$10. Call 301-495-6700 or go to afi.com/silver.

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