The old Jimmy Stewart classic was on today. I suppose that it was scheduled well in advance, but the movie is particularly appropriate these days given the Senate seat sale apparently underway in the great state of Illinois. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was made in 1939, so I guess it shows that political corruption is nothing new. But I fear that we seem to have lost the capacity for shame. Now we see things in terms of political maneuvering and tend to treat it more like a game. It should not be. Politicians do not own their offices. They just are holding them for the people.
That film made an impression on me. I saw it on TV for the first time on the day before my mother died. That whole day is strongly pressed into my memory. We didn’t handle it well. My father was trying to protect my sister and me, but I think it ended up isolating us. I figured if I just didn’t believe it was possible, it wouldn’t be true. My sister was only fifteen. My time would have been better spent being with her than watching television by myself. Sorry. Seeing that movie brings back those memories. Thirty-six years later it still stings. But that’s not all.
As with all real classics, the impressions from the movie grew beyond it with the outside experience. When I joined the FS and came to Washington for the first time, I walked around the Capitol Mall, as Jefferson Smith does in the movie and I had a similar reaction. I still do. Even after all these years and daily familiarity with the monuments, they still move me.
Of course, it is painful that Jeff Smith is such a complete rube. We have a kind of fetish of the outsider in the U.S. that innocence and inexperience are the keys to successful political leadership. I think that is wishful thinking and a caricature of the valid argument that not all expertise and intelligence resides with experts and professionals. We need and benefit from a constant influx of new people and new ideas. It is too easy for people within the beltway and the political class generally to think they have cornered the market on knowledge. But like anything else, there are skills and experience that are useful in government and they are not always self evident or easily acquired.
My view on the movie is more nuanced than when I saw it when I was seventeen. Then I just saw the good little guy against the big corrupt machine. I used to think that politics was about right and wrong, that there was a RIGHT answer. Now I understand that we have politics because we disagree about what is the right thing to do. When we all agree, we don’t have politics; we just have laws or customs. Politics is about compromise in all the connotations of that word. I don’t believe that a politician as a person must or should abandon principles or values, but the TOOL of politics is at best amoral. That is why it is best to keep as much out of politics as possible. Reserve politics for the real disagreements.
As I watched the movie again today, I thought of how Jeff Smith should have gone about his work in the Senate. He could have built that boys’ camp, but maybe not at that exact location. In fact, the dam the Taylor machine wanted to build might have improved the setting. They could have a nice lake and get to watch the nearby construction. If all parties to negotiations have positions they cannot or will not compromise, it is unlikely they can come to any kind of mutually beneficial deal. The idea is that everybody gives and gets. When one of the parties takes a “my way or highway” stand, as Jeff Smith does, nothing moves.
There are sacred principles that cannot be compromised. There are things we will fight for and die for, things we will impose on others. If you cannot think of any, you are soul-dead. If you can think of too many, you are a self-indulgent narcissist. Given a few more years of experience, Mr. Smith would have been more effective, if less certain of his righteousness. It probably would not make a very interesting movie, however.