Mr. Smith was a hero, Senate and press villains
We watched the great Frank Capra classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in my Literature and Film class the other day.
If you haven’t seen it, or if it’s been a while, the film stars Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic, patriotic amateur who is appointed to a Senate seat after the death of one of his state’s Senators.
What he doesn’t know is that the corrupt political machine back home is convinced they can manipulate him and get him to go along with their shady deal to build a dam.
He idolizes the state’s other Senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), not realizing at first that, Paine, too, is corrupt and part of the machine.
Young Sen. Smith stands up to the machine, and they move to crush him.
We research the films we watch in class, and the students read about the reactions to “Mr. Smith” following its 1939 release.
It seems the biggest critics were members of Congress. In a piece in the Oct. 17, 1939, Christian Science Monitor, an angry Sen. Majority Leader (and future vice president) Alben Barkley, D-Kentucky, was quoted as saying:
“… 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 it was a source of disgust and hilarity to every member of Congress who saw it.”
Methinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Majority Leader.
Plenty of laws designed to prevent graft have been passed in the 80 years since the film was made, and the system is more transparent now.
But we couldn’t help noticing that the same week we watched the film there was a story in the news about how Senators of both parties make money investing in firms they regulate.
The more things change, the more they stay the same?
The Senate, though, was not only the institution that comes off looking horrible in the film.
The press, too, comes in for a cringe-inducing portrayal. Reporters are shown as grossly unfair, focused on the trivial, and outright corrupt — bought off by the machine back in Smith’s home state (which the film never names).
Yet, in our research, we found no complaints from the Fourth Estate about journalists being unfairly portrayed. That surprised me.
“Isn’t that because it’s pretty much accurate, though? Then and now?” one student asked.
It’s a symptom of how far we’ve fallen that young people would think that journalists are really that bad.
I acknowledged that there has been a diminution of journalistic standards in the internet era, and particularly in the last couple of years of the Trump era, but there is still a lot of good journalism being practiced — particularly outside of Washington and New York City.
I used to defend the profession much more vigorously, but it grows more difficult when hardly a week goes by that we don’t have some “bombshell” national story that then has to be “walked back” because of shoddy journalistic practices and a rush to get the story out.
The students listened politely, but let’s just say their trust in the media is considerably lower than when I was their age and so many thought Woodward and Bernstein walked on water.
William P. Warford’s column appears every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
As with all Frank Capra films, there was good and evil in 1939 classic