A Story We Need
Why "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is the Perfect Antidote to Our Times
I re-watched Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, after god knows how many decades, and within the first 30 minutes I knew I’d be writing about it. It’s timely and trenchant, and just what we need.
It was certainly what my son Henry needed. As you may recall from my Apocaloptism essay, he and I reconnected after his dismal semester in college. What you don’t know is that up until fairly recently — until 2020 or so — Henry considered going into politics someday. A worthy young intention, for sure, yet one that I secretly hoped wouldn’t come to pass.
He’d always been an avid student of history — obsessed with World War II from eight years old to this day — and an on-again, off-again idealist. Although he vacillated between wanting to go to law school to bring about positive change, and wondering if that kind of change was even possible, for the most part he maintained a cautious optimism.
The last two years really took it out of him. Perhaps you can relate.
The irony is that before 2020, when he was still relatively gung-ho America, I was disillusioned with the place. All I saw were broken systems — education, medicine, politics, to name but a few — and my hope for their repair dwindled. Thus my covert concern for Henry’s choice of a career path.
At that time I eyed other countries with envy: New Zealand (where I’ve visited a few times to visit one of my sisters) and Canada (the promised land right across the river from where I lived). My husband and I often talked about moving to one of those Shangri-Las.
I know, I know. More irony.
(My former feelings about those countries are deeply unsettling to me now, like the way I’d imagine I’d feel if I found out that the sweet old man down the street was just arrested for pedophilia.)
I had little hope that the U.S. could right itself. Then 2020 hit.
As world and U.S. events unfolded into 2021 and 2022, I eventually became the one who was more convinced in the possibility of making a difference. It wasn’t a smooth transition, and it took a while.
At first, my disillusionment actually spiraled further downward, as I dug in to discover the rotted underpinnings of the many government institutions I once revered — or at least held with a modicum of respect — and since Henry at that time was still defending some of those institutions, we argued about everything: whether our government was acting out of good intentions; how and why almost all of the governments of the world acted in concert in 2020; whether globalism was good or bad; whether censorship was really happening or not; whom to trust; yada yada yada.
Eventually, tired of the struggle, we tacitly acknowledged a truce. There didn’t seem to be any point in trying to convince the other about any of it, so we just stopped talking about what was going on in the world — mainly because neither of us trusted the sources cited by the other.
It was a tough time.
Because we had stopped talking, I was actually quite surprised when he recently admitted that law school and politics were really no longer on his career radar at all. He had come around to what I had believed two years prior: that serving in the government of this country was futile. Why would any honest person throw themselves into the merciless meat grinder of politics?
He was similarly surprised to hear that within my own dark loam of despondence about this country, during the past few years a tiny, bright seed of optimism had sprouted and taken root. (Again, see Apocaloptimism for my path to that place.)
So it was in those two differing states of hopefulness that we sat down together to watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is an unfailingly honest “Boy Ranger” leader (The Boy Scouts organization would not allow the film to use their name) who gets tapped to fill the seat vacated by a suddenly deceased U.S. senator. His political party, and the machine behind it, run by fat cat industrialist Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), choose him because they believe he will be malleable and a patsy… but it turns out he’s neither.
Smith becomes an inconvenient, outspoken fly in the corrupt congressional ointment — unwittingly at first — by complicating the plans of greedy Jim and the state’s other senator, Joe Paine (Claude Rains). Once an idealist, and the dear friend of Smith’s deceased father, Paine is now of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy. He’s also a presidential hopeful.
As a Junior Senator with zero political experience, Smith inherits a wise-cracking, jaded administrative assistant, Saunders (Jean Arthur), herself a former optimist who views Smith as a know-nothing hayseed appointee — a waste of the taxpayer’s money and worse, her time.
But Smith’s earnest-to-a-fault love of country, and his pure devotion to the truth, fan the spark of her own idealism, long-ago buried by the ashes of dirty Washington back-room deals. Of course, Saunders falls in love with him. Who doesn’t love those individuals who remind us of our own inherent goodness?
I don’t want to spoil the movie, if you’ve never seen it. But I do want to call out key moments and ideas, especially as they relate to the state of our nation and the power of story… which will ruin the plot for you. So you may want to go watch it, then read the rest of this essay.
I’ll wait. :-)
Welcome back! Or thanks for sticking around.
There have been many detractors of the movie over the years, starting with the political establishment of 1939, who was royally miffed at the movie’s allegations of American political corruption. (Which should tell you right there the movie was on to something.)
Upon its general release, the Washington press corps hated it, some legislators denounced it as anti-American and communist, and others called for the film to be banned outright. Family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, at the time serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, apparently sent a cablegram to Capra, saying that he felt the film would damage “America's prestige in Europe” and should therefore be withdrawn from European distribution.
Kennedy supposedly dropped that line of attack after reading favorable reviews of the film, but three fascist states did ban it: Germany, Italy and Spain. According to Capra, the film was also dubbed in other European countries, altering the film’s message to conform with official ideology.
Quite a contrast with German-occupied France in 1942. The major cinemas chose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the final English-language motion picture to be shown before a Nazi-ordered ban on American films went into effect. One Paris theater reportedly screened the film nonstop for 30 days prior to the ban.
Fascinating, isn’t it, that a movie that so angered Washington insiders was banned by fascist states in Europe? (Again, you know you’re doing something right when you infuriate that many powerful institutions.)
The irony here is thick, given the chilling role censorship plays in the film.
When Smith uncovers the graft-grubbing plans that fat cat Taylor and Senator Paine have cooked up, they warn him that he’s out of his league, “suggesting” in a mafioso sort of way that he might want to stand down on the upcoming vote. But Smith is not deterred, leaving Taylor and Paine with no alternative: they must bring him down.
And so they unleash false accusations that impugn Smith’s honor, trotting in paid witnesses and bogus documentation as “proof.” Paine even assassinates Smith’s character personally, a blow that Smith cannot fathom. Devastated and ruined, his innocence crushed, he packs his bags to flee the swamp.
Enter Saunders, with her unshakeable belief in him, a rousing pep-talk, and the legislative know-how to help Smith stand up for justice. She preserves his faith (and through him, ours) in democracy, restores his determination, and lovingly coaches him to storm back into the Senate and stage a one-man filibuster to block Paine’s appropriations bill.
Unfortunately for Smith, the Washington press corps spin his filibuster as self-serving grandstanding — after all, Paine has called Smith a deceitful, disgraced opportunist, doncha know, so it must be true — thereby turning public opinion further against him.
In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to publicize the REAL story of what’s happening on the floor of the Senate, Saunders dials up Jeff’s soft-spoken but iron-willed mother in Smith’s home state, and tells her how he’s speaking truth to power.
Ma Smith rouses legions of Jefferson Smith-adoring Boy Rangers into action, and in a scene reminiscent of Our Gang, they print the truth on their antiquated, small-town printing press, then zoom around on bikes to distribute their humble newsletter to townsfolk.
Taylor soon gets wind of this upstart independent media, makes just a few apoplectic phone calls to the media machine he owns, and voilà: the boys’ efforts are shut down and the counter-narrative is no more. Taylor even authorizes the physical roughing up of some boys for good measure.
It’s at this point in watching the movie where queasiness overtook me.
I was certain that those home-grown journalists would save the day. Of course I did; I view myself and the merry band of Substackers I follow and admire — like, , , , , , , , , , , , , and , to name some — as fellow inconvenient flies in the ointment, attempting to shift public perception even one degree closer to a broader view of what’s going on in the world.
But if our voices can be silenced by a powerful corporate machine, then what?
Smith comes to the same realization, and that’s when he hits rock-bottom. Exhausted, hoarse, defeated… he’s a man with nothing left to give. He staggers over to the overflowing baskets of hate mail and lowers his head. He’s finished.
My wonderful friend Kim told me a gorgeous story about her recent experience with air travel. (That’s practically a cause for hope right there. Have you heard anyone talk glowingly about a flight lately?)
Kim was flying from Charlotte, NC to Bend, OR, with a quick layover in Los Angeles along the way. “Quick,” as in 45 minutes quick — barely enough time to deplane, make it to the next gate, and board.
As she waited at the gate in Charlotte, she watched as her flight to LAX was 15 minutes delayed, then another 30 minutes. She boarded the Boeing 777 in Charlotte knowing there was nothing she could do about the situation, so she conked out during the in-flight movie, and woke up as the plane was descending into LAX. An attendant walked toward her.
“You’re connecting through to Oregon, right?” he asked. When Kim nodded, he continued, “We’re arriving at Terminal 4, and your connection is departing from Terminal 6, Gate 63. We can help you book a hotel room, if you’d like.”
Kim thanked him, placed her seat back to its upright and locked position, and sighed a small resigned sigh.
The plane landed, and an older man across the row caught her eye. “How well do you know LAX?” he barked.
“Um, okay, I guess…” she answered, not knowing really how to answer that question.
“Do you know the tunnel?”
“The tunnel.” Kim shook her head no, and the man grew deadly serious. “Okay. Listen to me.” His eyes narrowed. “I flew for 40 years. Do exactly what I tell you and you might actually make your connection.”
“Okay,” she said, and shifted slightly in her seat.
“Look at me!” he commanded, and she did. “Now. When you deplane, walk two gates to the right. Turn left at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Go past it. Look at me. Do not stop for coffee. Take the staircase down one level, and turn left. Take the escalator down, and the tunnel will be there. Run until you get to the second escalator and a giant arrow pointing up. Take that and you’ll be in Terminal 6, three gates away from Gate 63. Got it?”
“Repeat it back to me.”
She did, then started to say, “Thank you so much, I—” but didn’t finish. The flight attendant’s voice interrupted over the intercom:
“We have one passenger on this flight who’s trying to make a connection. Please, to help her, please remain seated until she makes her way off the aircraft.”
Kim looked around. Me? Are they talking about me? Incredulous, she gathered up her belongings as the plane pulled up and stopped at the gate. Sure enough, no one moved. She stood up, and the retired pilot offered a rugged “Good luck.”
She hustled up the aisle, and applause broke out. People shouted, “You go, girl!” and “You can do it!” The whole plane clapped and cheered, and as she exited onto the jetway, she felt a rush of hope. She started running.
Which brings me to the moment in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when my queasiness subsided. The President of the Senate, known in the movie as “Mr. President” (played by Harry Carey), has a soft spot for Smith. We know this by the gentle, good-natured ribbing he gives Smith at the outset of his tenure as Junior Senator, and by the points of order he decides in Smith’s favor along the way.
But the way we really know is by watching his reactions to Smith. Capra cuts away to Mr. President quite a few times during the movie, and we see him look away, suppressing a smile. He clearly can’t let on to the Senate that he wants Smith to win, but we know that he does.
In the last few minutes of the film, Smith, having filibustered for 23 hours, realizes that his truth, the truth, is being censored, and he crumples, eyes lowered. He is silent, beaten. Stillness hovers in the great hall, waiting. A beat. And another.
Then he looks up, ever so slightly, into the compassionate eyes of Mr. President.
Who smiles at him.
And that’s enough. That one gesture of support is enough for Smith to not give up. That smile unlocks a resource in him that is not of this world, and once more, he stands up tall. To Paine, he croaks:
“You know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others. Yes, you even die for them, like a man we both knew, Mr. Paine.” He pauses, his voice reviving. “You think I’m licked?”
And then, to the rapt audience:
“You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna 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’ll listen to me. Some…”
With that, he wavers, and falls to the floor in a heap of hate mail.
Witnessing Smith’s collapse and believing the worst, Paine rushes out of the chaotic chamber in an apparent crisis of conscience. After a brief botched suicide attempt, he returns and publicly declares his guilt to the entire Senate chamber still roiling in turmoil, shouting that he should be expelled, not Smith.
We know that Smith has only fainted, but we never hear from him again. Mr. President hollers “Order!” and bangs his gavel repeatedly, to no avail. Chaos has descended. Mr. President lays down his gavel, leans back in his chair, and chews gum as the mayhem unfolds and the screen fades to “The End.”
The finale of the movie has its critics. As Jimmy Stewart might say, “Heck, what piece of art doesn’t?” They complain that the resolution is a deus ex machina, a sudden, artificial solution. It is sudden, I’ll give them that.
But I love it. Here’s why.
Smith’s final words before he faints are “Somebody’ll listen to me.” To the very end, he has faith that his words are not in vain. I can sympathize. There have been times when I felt like I was shouting into a void, when plays that I wrote weren’t what theatres wanted to produce. It’s dispiriting.
In this age of amplification, it’s tempting to believe that if you don’t have thousands upon thousands of followers, subscribers, listeners, etc., your words are in vain. Yet in our hearts we all know that Emerson’s idea of success — “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived” — is truth.
The character of Jefferson Smith doesn’t know that the one person who is listening to him, really listening, is Senator Joe Paine. Or that Smith’s words could inspire Paine to remember that his original motivation to serve the public was to love his neighbor, not amass wealth and power.
Paine’s confession might seem abrupt and unlikely. Maybe it is. But I’ve seen people change on a dime, especially when they are living a life misaligned with their core values.
I also love the ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington because it demonstrates that truth spoken will ultimately prevail, probably in ways we could never predict, and that truth spoken also creates a necessary chaos — particularly in entrenched systems that seem impervious and watertight.
Truth is the bug in a system, any kind of system. It’s powerful, and it can bring down the whole shootin’ match.
You’ve probably guessed by now that my friend Kim made her flight.
Weeks later, she relayed the story to me because she wanted to share her takeaway from the experience. No, it was not about the airline industry, though I am determined to find out which airline it was. :-)
It was about support. How human beings can inspire one another to greatness, to reach beyond limitations, to accomplish the impossible. She believes she made her connecting flight because others believed she could, and gave her the means to do so.
Jefferson Smith had a loftier goal, perhaps, but he too couldn’t do it alone. Others, inspired by his idealism and goodness, believed in his mission and helped him achieve it: Saunders gave him the legislative tools to fight, the Boy Rangers applauded him from the gallery, and at the moment when all Smith needed was the simplest gesture of “I believe in you” to breathe hope back into his deflated being, Mr. President smiled at him.
Remember, the word inspire comes from Latin inspirare — literally, to breathe into.
That’s how it can work, you see, like a simple but profound exchange: Smith breathed hope into Saunders, the Boy Rangers, and Mr. President, and they breathed it back into him in return. It can also manifest this way: you inspire me, I inspire someone else, who perhaps circles back around and inspires you.
There are many who deem Mr. Smith Goes to Washington hokey, or sappy, or Norman Rockwell-ish. I get that. Our culture has become so totally inured to corruption, so pickled in cynicism, that a movie as gosh-golly as this one may seem almost laughable in its naïveté.
All the more reason to watch it, I say.
If our stories do indeed create us, as I believe they do, then what are the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives, our world? Are they inspirational? Are they melting cynicism and building hope? I’d argue that most are not. The small, innocuous ones, like “I can’t make my connection,” lie on one end of a spectrum, while the big, gnarly ones, like “The political system is irredeemably corrupt and can never be changed,” lie on the other… but the spectrum is the same: pure pessimism.
And so I tell you the story of Jefferson Smith, and of my friend Kim, because in 2020 I thought, Oh Henry, don’t waste your time on politics, but I’ve since realized: I don’t want to live like that. I can’t. I won’t. Watching this movie only strengthened that conviction.
I don’t know if watching it altered any of Henry’s career plans, but it did welcome him back to his optimistic side, the place where the belief that “somebody’ll listen” still holds firm within him.
Because every voice does matter: mine, my son’s, and yours. Which stories are you ushering into your life? Which ones, in turn, will you tell?