It was a dramatic moment in a dramatic story.
The tall young senator stood unshaven and disheveled on the floor of the senate. His voice hoarse from hours of a filibuster; exhausted, his energy spent in a one-man defense of his ideals, he looked once more at his passive colleagues.
“You think I’m licked,” he told them. “You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”
He staggered over to the large bin overflowing with fabricated telegrams orchestrated to condemn him and drive him from office.
He reached in and grabbed a handful and held them up.
“Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”
With that, Senator Jefferson Smith collapsed.
As with all Frank Capra’s movies, this one would have a happy ending. The distinguished but corrupted senator whom Jeff Smith had once idolized openly confessed his complicity on the senate floor.
Jim Taylor’s graft machine was defeated.
Truth triumphed over greed.
Jeff Smith would live to fight another day.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – starring the inimitable James Stewart in his first Oscar-nominated role – stands alone as the iconic Hollywood depiction of American values and old-fashioned patriotism.
That nearly eighty years later its pure idealism would seem so quaintly irrelevant is an American tragedy.
Young Jefferson Smith, unlikely choice to replace a deceased senator, is suddenly thrust into the cynical sneering world of Washington politics. A good and decent man, the naïve Smith is mocked by the press and ridiculed and dismissed by his worldly colleagues.
When his legislative plans to acquire land to build a camp for boys in his home state interfere with the nefarious schemes of a powerful political machine, Smith is suddenly no laughing matter. Run by a ruthless boss named James Taylor, the machine goes all out to railroad unsuspecting Jeff Smith out of the senate.
It is a classic morality play.
Selfless idealism confronts self-centered greed.
Throughout the film, the virtues and values of America – especially our ideas about individual freedom and decency – are unapologetically espoused.
There is no cynicism in this film except on the part of the villains who care nothing of American virtues and have no virtue of their own. They care only for themselves – for power and for money. They would use the government to concentrate and expand both.
Speaking to his jaded legislative assistant who would later root for him and fall in love with him, Jeff Smith explained why he wanted the boys’ camp:
“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more.
Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”
When Jeff Smith finally had the chance to speak to his hardened senate colleagues on the floor, he painted a noble red, white and blue portrait of America.
He read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He invoked Lady Liberty at the top of the capitol dome and defended “the whole parade of what man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting …so he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created to, no matter what his race, color or creed.”
Smith insisted “there’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.” Freedom, he declared, was “the blood and bone and sinew of this democracy that some great men handed down to the human race.”
It was quite a speech.
Jeff Smith believed every word of it.
Today, many Americans, like the boys Smith spoke of, have forgotten what it truly means to be an American. Amidst our cynicism, anger, fear and bitterness we’ve lost sight of the great privilege and duty of living in the greatest, freest and most wonderful nation on earth.
It’s easy to give in to despair and cynicism. The media, popular culture and too many of our politicians lead us to think that American liberty and all it represents is just another “lost cause.”
But as Jefferson Smith reminded us, we must hold to our ideals and “you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others. Yes, you even die for them.”
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was banned in Hitler’s Germany. In German-occupied France in 1942 it was the last film shown before the ban went into effect – one theater showed it 30 times – and the first shown after France was liberated.
It should be required viewing in every high school.
Jeff Smith reminds us of what America means – what it stands for and why it’s worth fighting to preserve.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8,KJV).