The Mr. Smith Fallacy

Was screening Frank Capra’s classic the true nuclear option?

It’s just a movie!

In the absence of any other logical explanation, I conclude that what nudged the Senate back from the brink of a “nuclear option” —the majority-driven rule change disallowing the use of filibusters against judicial nominees—was the prospect that both Democrats and Republicans would screen Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, last night in the Capitol.

As I’ve explained before, I believe that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist should have taken his “nuclear option” one step further and eliminated the filibuster not only for judicial nominees but for legislation, too. This isn’t because I favor the appointment of judges hostile to a woman’s right to choose abortion; I don’t. Rather, it’s because I believe the filibuster is an inherently reactionary tool that, over the long term, has impeded and will continue to impede activist liberal government by imposing a 60-vote supermajority requirement on virtually every bill that comes before Congress. People would have an easier time grasping this if it weren’t for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

In Mr.Smith, the idealistic Sen. Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, uses the filibuster to block legislation to build the Willet Creek Dam, the true purpose of which, we are told, is to line the pockets of political bosses. That sounds like a plausibly liberal goal today, when environmentalists routinely argue that dams destroy delicate ecosystems. And it seemed so during the last week of October 1972, when I, age 14, attended a screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at Pomona College with my older brother Peter. Capra was there to answer questions from the audience afterward, and Peter’s hand was the first one up. “Mr. Capra,” asked my brother, “can I assume, based on what we just saw, that this Tuesday you’ll cast your vote for George McGovern?” Capra looked balefully at his shaggy-haired, bearded interlocutor, whose political views, he knew, were shared by nearly everyone else in the audience. Then he mumbled, “Uh … no.”

Capra idealized the common man, but he was nobody’s idea of a liberal. And back when Mr. Smith was released—a mere six years after the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority—liberals were not the dam-haters they are today. New Dealers considered the building of federally funded dams vital to maintaining struggling family farms and to bringing electricity to the homes of the rural poor. Seen in its historic context, then, the fictional bill that the fictional Mr. Smith blocks is what today would be called “progressive legislation.” It therefore fits right in with the sort of bills that filibusters have nearly always been deployed against in real life. Thanks to the filibuster, President Roosevelt was never able to pass anti-lynching legislation. More recently, the filibuster kept the Clinton administration from overhauling a century-old mining law that makes it impossible for taxpayers to block environmentally harmful giveaways to companies mining federal land. Today, the filibuster guarantees that the United States won’t pass legislation extending health insurance to all its citizens. And saving it is a great liberal cause?

Another fallacy inherent in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the notion that the modern-era filibuster has anything to do with what Sen. Robert Byrd (citing Mr. Smith in a March 1 floor speech) grandly calls “the deliberative process.” As Byrd well knows, contemporary practice eliminates the speechifying part of the filibuster altogether; these days, whenever a filibuster is threatened, the Senate majority will typically calculate whether it has the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate, and if it doesn’t, it won’t bother to bring the legislation in question to a floor vote at all. (Byrd, I should note, filibustered—the old-fashioned way—14 hours against passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That’s the law that banned discrimination in public facilities! So forgive me if his views on the subject don’t command my full attention.)

It’s ironic that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has become an argument-stopping sacred cow in Washington, because when the film premiered in 1939 at Washington’s DAR Constitution Hall, it got an overwhelmingly hostile reception. Here’s how Capra remembered it in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title:

By the time Mr. Smith sputtered to the end music, about one-third of Washington’s finest had left. Of those who remained, some applauded, some laughed, but most pressed grimly for the doors. … [At the reception afterward,] I took the worst shellacking of my professional life. Shifts of hopping-mad Washington press correspondents belittled, berated, scorned, vilified, and ripped me open from stem to stern as a villainous Hollywood traducer.

In an interview with Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor, Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley, a Democrat (he would later be Harry Truman’s vice president), changed the subject from the debate over entering the war in Europe to Capra’s film. Barkley called Mr. Smith

as grotesque as anything I have ever seen. … At one point, the picture shows the senators walking out on Mr. Smith as a body when he is attacked by a corrupt member. The very idea of the Senate walking out at the behest of that old crook! It was so grotesque it was funny. It showed the Senate made up of crooks, led by crooks, listening to a crook. … It was so vicious an idea that it was a source of disgust and hilarity to every member of Congress who saw it. … I did not hear a single senator praise it. I speak for the whole body.

A fascinating index of how our politics have changed since 1939 is that back when Mr. Smith came out, it didn’t occur to members of the Senate—or even the press!—to identify with the film’s authority-defying protagonist. Today, it would never occur to a senator—even a member of the Senate leadership—to identify with anyone else. Maybe that explains why the filibuster is proving so hard to kill.