Dear Drama Observers,
It’s become part of our family tradition to watch the old movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, every Fourth of July. It’s a patriotic movie but doesn’t portray a sanitized image of America where all of its vices have been scrubbed clean. Indeed, vice is central to the story it tells.
It’s a heroic drama in which Jefferson Smith, played by a young Jimmy Stewart, stands up to a corrupt political machine. And the movie is illustrative of what I talk about so often in this weekly (or not so weekly in recent months) letter called The Drama Review. Here’s what I’ve written about it before.
Please note: If you want to find out how the movie ends, you’ll need to watch it. And you won’t regret you did.
The 1939 movie was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was directed by Frank Capra and starred a fresh-faced Jimmy Stewart who comprised the role of Jefferson Smith. A senator had died unexpectedly, and the state’s corrupt political boss pressured the governor into appointing a new senator who would dutifully play his designated role in the tribal drama. Acquiescence to the political boss was the only qualification required.
Of course, this would involve lying, cover-ups, and back-room deals—things the newly-appointed Senator Smith’s integrity would not allow. Jeff had naively assumed that the state’s senior senator, Joseph Harrison Paine, would likewise be constrained by his integrity from doing such things. It was a sad awakening for Jeff to discover that Senator Paine had indeed done such things–for years. He was entirely unnerved by the appalling discrepancy between the public Senator Paine, who was greatly revered, and the one behind the mask. Here’s how he explained it when Jeff got wind of the crooked scheme being cooked up by the political boss and Senator Paine.
Now listen Jeff, please, and try to understand. I know it’s tough to run head on into facts but as I said, this is a man’s world and you have to check your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers.
Now, 30 years ago, I had your ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. I made it. I compromised. Yes, so that all those years I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways.
You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting. Half the time, they don’t vote anyway. That’s how states and empires have been built since time began. Don’t you understand?
Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are. Now, I’ve told you all this because I’ve grown very fond of you.
I’d like to point out several glaring incongruences in Senator Paine’s despicable rationalization.
- First, he was saying he had to lie in order to serve honestly. Honest service required dishonest methods.
- Second, the higher good—assisting the people of his state—was served by low-life activities.
- Third, appearances—Senator Paine was widely referred to in his state as The Silver Knight—were more important than reality.
- Fourth, his repeated use of the word “facts.” The not-so-subtle subtext was, “My facts overwhelm your sentiments.” He had constructed a lie using nothing but the building materials of facts.
- Fifth, his supposedly noble motivation of telling Jeff these things for his own good. Of course, Jeff’s subsequent refusal to acquiesce revealed Senator Paine’s true character—that of a vicious mortal enemy bent on Jeff’s complete and utter destruction.
- And sixth, the elevation of power over truth. Lord Voldemort would’ve been proud.
As Jeff listened to this claptrap, he stood there dumbfounded, stumped for words. Because, in those situations, you’re never quite sure what to say. How do you discuss ideals with a man who justifies checking those ideals at the door? How do you talk principles when the person rationalizes the discarding of those principles to serve a supposed higher good? In actuality, the only “good” being served was the preserving of Senator Paine’s image and power. How do you reason with a man who’s renounced the use of reason? There just weren’t words.
Jeff refused to play along with the scheme. So, Senator Paine and his sleazy cohort fabricated a tale in which Jeff was the one who was guilty of corrupt dealings, not the senator. He was slapped with an undeserved label. And it almost worked.
Till next week.