WASHINGTON – As the New Year begins, I express my wish: I would like a real “Mr. Smith” to come to Washington. Senator Jefferson Smith is the leading character (superbly played by a young James Stewart) in the famous 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” directed by Frank Capra. The plot is simple. A bunch of corrupt “machine politicians” out West need a quick replacement for a deceased senator. They pick Jefferson Smith, (James Stewart), mostly because he is young, naive and simple; therefore likely to follow orders.
Mr. Smith is sincere
Well, without getting into the details of a well crafted plot, newly arrived Senator Jefferson Smith soon enough finds out the truth. Yes, he is simple and unsophisticated. But he believes in America and in its institutions aimed at preserving Freedom. All alone, he fights the good fight. He gets allies; and in the end he wins. The crooks are exposed and the institutions of the American Republic are preserved. It may be no accident that Smith’s first name is “Jefferson”. Not a rare name in America; but particularly fitting in this case.
America is good
The moral lesson of this movie is clear. America is good. Its foundations are good. Yes, there will be crooks and manipulators. But then, a Good Man, sustained just by his decency and by his belief in the goodness supporting the foundations of this government, will rise and lead the fight to restore them when they are under threat. Eventually Senator Jefferson Smith wins. Not because he is super smart. Not because he has a mass following. But only because he is honest and sincere.
Barack Obama as Mr. Smith?
In a sense, back in 2008 Barack Obama looked a bit like Mr. Smith. He was new and untested. A young man of mixed race, he talked a lot about his vision of a reconciled America that would move from greatness to greatness. He energized the younger generation, usually cynical about politics. All this contributed to his surprising primaries victory against Hillary Clinton, the “safe” candidate of the Democratic establishment.
But then the whole magic fizzled. Sure enough, Obama got re-elected in 2012. But this was almost entirely because of a clever message crafted by professionals. “I am the defender of entitlements. Republican Mitt Romney is a greedy capitalist who wants more tax cuts for the rich, while he could not care less about the poor”. Nothing new and magic in this campaign message. It was old-fashioned manipulation. And now we are stuck. A diminished Obama is in the White House. But he has no freedom of movement because the Republicans can block anything, due to their control of the House.
Republicans are not in better shape
The Republicans, in turn, are not shining these days. They are torn apart by their internal ideological wars between traditional, middle of the road conservatives and radical, often ideological libertarians. So far, no real national leader has emerged from this squabble. Overall none of this looks very inspiring.
Let Mr. Smith come to Washington
Therefore, at the inception of this New Year, please allow me to dream. Yes, let not just one but many “Mr. Smith” come to Washington. Sure enough, America needs national leaders who have the background and the intellectual abilities to run a complex state. But most of all we need people with simple but strong beliefs in the goodness of the principles at the foundation of this republican government. Following these principles elected leaders will do their best to advance, without partisanship, and in a transparent fashion, the interests of this Nation. America’s success was and is still premised on the existence of such people.
The Constitution provides the guidelines. But without people who understand what it takes to have a vibrant and successful self-government, the rules alone are meaningless. In the Capra movie America was reminded that it needed moral people in charge in order to succeed. People like Jefferson Smith who sincerely believe in the principles outlined in the Declaration and in the Constitution. Today the 1939 story, so well presented by Frank Capra, may appear quaint.
And yet, do we have anything better to replace it? I doubt it.