Dear ready-to-change-the-subject drama watchers,
If you’re like me, I’m fairly exhausted by all the national drama. But then, real-life dramas are just that . . . exhausting. The ones on TV shows or the big screen are fun, compelling, and enervating. The ones on the news are sickening, maddening, and energy-draining. So, you’d think I’d move on to a different topic this week but, alas, not just yet. I know it’s just a movie but so many elements of the 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are relevant in our current environment and I’d like to highlight a few additional points.
To recap, Jefferson Smith (played by a young Jimmy Stewart) gets appointed to the Senate to fill the seat of a suddenly-departed senator. After being sworn in, he stumbles across massive corruption and occupying center stage in the sleaze drama is Joseph Paine, the state’s other senator who’s highly-regarded by everyone including Jeff.
When confronted, Senator Paine patronizingly assures Jeff that noble objectives sometimes require dishonest methods. He admits to the corruption but justifies it saying, “I compromised. Yes, so that all those years I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways.” He rationalizes the laying aside of principles for the achievement of some greater “good.”
Jeff is thunderstruck by the incongruence between the public and private Senator Paine. The “Silver Knight” (as his admirers called him) looked good from a distance but was actually covered with tarnish. Jeff is even more rattled, however, by his mentor’s insistence that Jeff support the pretense—to compromise his own principles by playing his role in the conspiracy of silence.
That was a bridge too far for Jeff and he’d have no part of the skullduggery. Alexander Solzhenitsyn would later write, “Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.” Jeff’s commitment to honesty, decency and integrity left him unwilling to play any role in the propagation of lies. The jig was about to be up.
But liars don’t abide exposure. Like roaches darting under furniture when the lights get turned on, they run from the truth. So, Senator Paine and his minions cover their deception with yet another lie, only this one was personally destructive. They create a narrative that Jefferson Smith is using his Senate seat to line his own pockets. Jeff is, in fact, the corrupt one and they are the righteous exposers, the story goes. Senator Paine turns truth on its head and accuses Jeff of the very things that are true of him.
Scott Peck once noted that “lies confuse” and manipulators operate most effectively within a cloud of confusion. Senator Paine had skillfully concealed his duplicity behind the façade of a statesman. So, predictably, when the Silver Knight put out the false narrative, his constituents saw no reason to disbelieve it. They bought the lie and turned en masse against Jeff. Perhaps this was because they had “grown accustomed to the politics of rationalization and the moral compromises it demands,” as Charlie Sykes noted just this week.
If you ask a man on the street to list off the 10 Commandments, there’s a good chance you’d hear, “Thou shalt not lie,” in the list. And that might prohibit you from saying things like, “Sorry officer, my speedometer said I was only going 65.” But the actual wording is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” So, what’s being prohibited is something worse—much worse. It creates a false narrative that destroys a person’s reputation and credibility. A reputation that’s hard to rebuild once it’s been torn down. The old saying is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Actually, false words can destroy a person. That was Senator Paine’s objective—the destruction of Jefferson Smith.
The story up to this point mirrors the real world as we know it. But then, it takes a turn into life as we’d like it to be. Against all odds, Jeff filibusters the Senate and exposes the corruption. His efforts are about to fail until Senator Paine admits to everything and admonishes the Senate to “expel me, not this boy.” The good guy wins, the bad guys lose, everyone cheers, and the movie’s over. It’s a wonderful feel-good ending.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m mocking the movie because I really love it. But, in real life, we don’t usually get the satisfaction of seeing manipulators pay a price for their deceptions.
For years, women who’ve been used and abused by powerful men have kept those experiences to themselves, knowing full well that speaking up would bring a devilish backlash. One in which lying men would label them the liars. Recent occurrences would suggest that sickening trend is being reversed.
It’s not same as the feel-good ending of Mr. Smith—that’s just a movie, after all. But it must be vindicating for these women to see something rare–bad men paying a price for their bad behavior.
May the trend continue.