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Mr. Paine went to Washington, too

The 1939 classic ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ has lessons to teach on Capitol Hill today

Claude Rains (left) and Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Dear Honorable Republican Members of the United States Senate —

You probably think you don’t have much in common with the movie critic for the newspaper of record in one of the bluest states in the country. But I’ll bet we agree on this: The 1939 Jimmy Stewart film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a powerful and immensely pleasurable work of American political idealism. A rock-ribbed classic of Hollywood patriotism. Maybe it’s even the movie that got your youthful self fired up for a career in public service.

Well, guess what? Now’s your chance to do the right thing and be Joseph Paine, the “Silver Fox” of the Senate who’s played in the movie by Claude Rains.


No, no, not when the character attempts suicide outside the Senate chambers. After that, when he rushes back in, stands up for all that is decent and true, and saves the day. You want to be that guy. And you still could be.

To specify for those who haven’t seen the movie: Stewart’s character, Jefferson Smith, is a Boy Scout leader and rawboned political newbie who is chosen to represent his state after an incumbent senator dies; the corrupt powers that be figure the kid will be easy to push around. But this is a man who feels the Bill of Rights in his bones — who goes to talk to Honest Abe at the Lincoln Memorial when he’s feeling blue. After Smith tries to expose the rot in his state capitol, he’s framed for embezzlement in a trumped-up media campaign and almost goes down after a heroic filibuster sequence. That’s when his mentor Paine, himself knee-deep in mendacity, can’t take it anymore and confesses all on the floor of the Senate. Pandemonium reigns, democracy is saved, and Smith gets the girl journalist (Jean Arthur).


James Stewart and Jean Arthur in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."Columbia Pictures

Of course it’s corny. Of course it’s a big old comfort bowl of Hollywood wish-fulfillment. Actual senators laughed themselves silly when the movie came out in 1939, and cynics then and now point out that the only way screenwriter Sidney Buchman and director Frank Capra could gin up a happy ending was to make a seasoned politician have a dramatic crisis of conscience at the last possible second. That’s like asking Mitch McConnell to stop playing Machiavelli for one second and have a change of heart. Which presumes he actually has one.

And yet. There are some of you — not many but maybe enough — who recognize that our country is at a crossroads and that you are being asked to do something fundamentally unfair. Not illegal or unconstitutional, oh no. But in the matter of the Supreme Court vacancy, you are being asked to take a system that is predicated on our highest ideals of government and drag it down in an act of truly bad faith.

Because Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died during President Trump’s term in office, he and the Republican-controlled Senate have the power to install as ninth Supreme Court justice pretty much who they want. This is the grand finale toward which the Grand Old Party — or the extremist wing that now controls it — has been moving for decades, a final chess move in a game that has packed the federal courts with purported Constitutionalists and is intent on shifting the Court’s center to the far right. On the line, Senators, are your ‘constituents’ health care during the middle of a pandemic. At risk is Roe v. Wade, the overturning of which goes against the wishes of two-thirds of Americans, according to recent polls. Already, Justices Thomas and Alito have indicated their desire to reverse course on gay marriage, potentially nullifying hundreds of thousands of unions.


Trump’s choice, Amy Coney Barrett, has been affiliated with People of Praise, a Catholic charismatic group that opposes abortion and until recent years referred to its married women members as “handmaids”; the group’s website removed all photos and mentions of Barrett in 2017, when she first landed on the president’s short-list. She has pledged to be — and could turn out to be — a model of unbiased jurisprudence who separates personal beliefs from judicial thinking. But only a child would believe that’s why McConnell and his allies want her on the bench.

Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."Columbia/via AP

A separate and equally pressing issue is that the appointment is being rushed through at a moment when the power balance in Washington is in the midst of dramatically shifting. In 2016, the Senate under McConnell’s leadership refused even to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the court; the rationale was that it was the last year of Obama’s second term, with nine months still to go. This time around we have less than a month left before Election Day, people are already voting in droves, the Capitol has been swamped by a pandemic that has sickened the president and much of his inner circle, and polls are tipping increasingly in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden and enough Democrats to turn the Senate blue.


The ship is sinking. McConnell can see that. The race to confirm Barrett, preferably by Nov. 3, is a final Hail Mary in a career dedicated to packing the courts so that they reflect the beliefs of a minority that will dictate the future to the majority for decades. This is simultaneously within the rule book and against the norms of American democracy, and everyone understands that. Even the base: When a GOP political strategist recently held a focus group of Republican women Trump voters from swing states, not one of them favored moving forward with a Supreme Court confirmation before the election, and a number said they were more likely to vote for Biden as a result.

If the Senate Judiciary Committee approves Barrett, the vote goes to the full Senate, where 50 votes will confirm. As Republicans, you hold 53 seats, a majority that may well not last into the new year. Bear in mind that this desperate scramble to place on the highest court a jurist whose views are antithetical to those of most Americans — when the previous administration was blatantly denied the opportunity for their nominee to be even heard — is transparently unpopular. It reeks of cynicism, cronyism, corruption. Worst of all, it goes against the bedrock virtues of balance and fairness on which this country was founded nearly 250 years ago. Jefferson Smith would be sick to his stomach to see it.


Well, he was a Hollywood hero and life rarely comes with Hollywood endings. At the same time, nobody likes a bully — except maybe other bullies — and in your hearts, Senators, you know this is a profoundly ugly mugging of our system of government. You know it, your children know it, and, believe me, the history books will say it.

Most of you will never read this and most of those who do will laugh. But I’m praying that four or five of you might find it in your hearts to go home, watch “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” again, and come to terms with an uncomfortable emotion we call shame. Even high Hollywood hokum can contain a kernel or two of truth — can show who we might be if we were the ones writing the scripts. Well, this time you’re the ones writing the script. And if Senator Joseph Paine can find his way back to his conscience, so can you.