Next Thursday, the United States Senate will convene its new year and it may change its filibuster rule, following our own Sen. Jeff Merkley’s recommendations. Among other changes, we may see a return of the “talking filibuster” as glorified in Frank Capra’s 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, including James Stewart’s first for best actor.
I watched the film this week to see if I could learn any lessons about the filibuster, Washington DC culture, and politics in general. Then I saw that Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch’s book “52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life” had risen to Number 915 on Amazon.com popularity list before it sold out.
Here then — for the price of today’s newspaper — are a dozen little lessons from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
1. Portland elected Charlie Hales mayor in November, interrupting the political ambitions of his younger and taller opponent. This real Jefferson Smith wasn’t aiming for a Senate seat, but otherwise it looks like art-imitates-life-imitates-art. Both Jefferson Smiths were swept into politics by leading youth movements: the Boy Rangers in the movie; the Bus Project in real life.
2. Jimmy Stewart’s character didn’t like how reporters treated him, so he punched each of them in the nose. (See also No. 12.) Jeff Smith’s real mayoral campaign deflated when news came out that he was evicted from two sports leagues for fighting, and that he broke the nose of a woman at a party when they both were students at the University of Oregon.
3. In Capra’s portrayal, journalists don’t defend themselves, but they do promise they will outlast Smith and all the other politicians. News accounts in the film are often shaped to tell a story that reporters already have written in their heads.
4. If politicians too often are shaped by how the news portrays them, the news can be shaped by the business interests that own the outlets.
5. Business shapes news, which shapes politics. They all are outlasted by the furniture. Smith is astounded that his Senate desk once was Daniel Webster’s.
6. Passing bills is hard. Stopping them is easy. In two hours on the screen, no bills or resolutions pass the Senate, but three are blocked.
7. Smith gets this advice about Washington from the senior Senator of his unnamed state: “This is a man’s world and you’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, like you do your rubbers.”
8. Only a newcomer in Washington could believe that legislators are called “lawmakers” for a reason. Not surprisingly, recent news accounts have characterized Merkley and other reformers as “a cohort of short-sighted Senate sophomores.”
9. Institutional reform can more easily come from states that are far from the thrall of Washington. Smith doesn’t pack much for his two-day train trip to the nation’s capital, but he does bring his caged homing pigeons. Direct communication with constituents back home, even in 1939, could have been called “tweets.”
10. Smith’s strategy for holding the Senate floor is called blackmail twice in the film before the term “filibuster” is ever used. A radio broadcaster helpfully explains it to his listeners as “the right to talk your head off.”
11. Talking an idea to death, at least when accompanied by a good musical score, can add compelling drama to an idea that wouldn’t otherwise get the attention it deserves. Smith’s resolve stirs in the public their own sense of justice and common sense. Smith’s secretary describes his heroism this way: “It’s a 40-foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it!”
12. Just before he collapses after more than 23 hours of talking, Smith ramblingly reflects on the Declaration of Independence: “You’re not gonna have a country that can make these kind of rules if you haven’t got men who can tell human rights from a punch in the nose…. I wouldn’t give ya two cents for all your fancy rules, if behind them they didn’t have a little bit of plain ordinary kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella, too.”
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. Welch’s book “52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life” can be ordered at www.amazon.com, where used copies have been selling for triple the cover price.