Where’s our Jimmy Stewart?
I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, and about “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the 1939 Frank Capra classic about a naïve outsider who gets elected to the US Senate, roils the beltway establishment, and reminds all those cynics on the screen and out in the audience of the hard-won ideals that serve as the foundation of the American experiment.
Mostly I’ve been wondering where that guy is as the house built atop that foundation seems in danger of burning to the ground and the alarms in the firehouse seem awfully slow to ring. We have elected an Idiot in Chief — this is not bias, this is fact — who, more than anything, seems astonished that thinking, caring, patriotic people might object to both his possible collusion with Russian interests and his alleged attempts to curtail an utterly reasonable search for the facts of the matter.
Yet few on Capitol Hill in a position to do anything about it seem inclined to speak for the majority of Americans, per months of opinion polls, who disapprove of the Trump presidency. Our allies are giving us the side-eye, the intelligence community appears to be in open revolt, the stock market’s starting to get the jitters, and as I write this the “I” word is finally being murmured by more than one politician on either side of the aisle.
That’s right: It’s not even June and we’re considering impeachment.
So, yes, the ground finally seems to be shifting away from Trump, but only as an act of reluctant groupthink on the part of the majority Republicans. There’s an opening for a hero here and no one seems interested in the job. Where’s our Jefferson Smith to voice our communal outrage and to remind us all how very, very far we’ve come from our hard-won ideals of governance? To loudly insist that making one’s tax returns public is a good idea, especially if you’re a businessman who has had dealings with powerful people from the country that hacked our last election. To passionately explain why reportedly asking the director of the FBI to drop an investigation into your national security advisor (and then firing him when he doesn’t) sounds an awful lot like obstruction of justice. To take us back, metaphorically speaking, to the Lincoln Memorial for a hushed midnight reminder of how the checks and balances of this country are supposed to work — and, more important, why.
You remember the climactic scene of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” don’t you? The earnest young senator has had his eyes opened to the day-to-day corruption of Washington — the favors that get traded, the bribes that get paid — and, before he can talk, the powers that be frame him for graft. Smith filibusters in an effort to save his skin, reads from the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bible until he’s hoarse. He’s practically a Christ figure on the cross of our cynicism, but he knows he’s right. His conviction is what saves him, and us.
The problem with real life is that everybody thinks they’re right, even when they’re working from flawed principles or distorted facts or stews of hatred, ignorance, and fear. Everyone thinks they’re Jefferson Smith, in part because everyone wants to be like Jimmy Stewart. Over a six-decade career, the actor embodied a thoughtful, caring sincerity — a decency — that we like to think is somehow emblematic of the American personality.
It’s not, or not nearly as much as we hope. A visit to the darker chapters of this country’s history will attest to that, as will photos of the torch-bearing mob around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., just days ago. But ideals are there to be grasped at if not attained, so thank the star for putting a face on our best idea of ourselves.
No one can be Jimmy Stewart, though — even Jimmy Stewart had trouble living up to his own iconography. But would it kill anyone in Washington to try? There are elected representatives among the Democrats who are thundering their disapproval, and it’s probably not a coincidence that several prominent ones are women: New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Representative Maxine Waters. Ms. Smith has come to Washington, but she has yet to capture the public imagination on a mass scale. They’re ready, but apparently we aren’t.
When former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to a Senate subcommittee on May 8 about the Michael Flynn affair and her refusal to enforce Trump’s travel ban, there was a spasm of relief at her calm, reasoned, firm responses to often hostile questioning. For a brief moment, Yates was the voice of clarity for which many people had been yearning. But that feels like 80 news cycles ago now, and we’re exhausted all over again.
Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. If you’ve seen “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” you may remember who actually saves the day and exonerates the hero. It’s Senator Joe Paine — the corrupt “Silver Knight,” played by Claude Rains, who mentors Smith before throwing him to the wolves and who in the film’s climax suddenly grows a conscience, unsuccessfully tries to shoot himself in the Senate corridor, then rushes back to confess all.
I bet Washington insiders had a horselaugh over that in 1939, and it seems even more farfetched in 2017. Granted, US Representative and House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz demanded on Tuesday that the FBI make available all communications between Trump and former FBI director James Comey — “I have my subpoena pen ready” he said — but he’s late in growing a spine. Senator John McCain is finally coming out with more forceful statements comparing the Russia affair to Watergate but his reputation as a maverick is in tatters after months of being “troubled” by Trump while meekly rubber-stamping his agenda.
If the jungle drums pick up their pace and impeachment becomes a legitimate possibility, it will be interesting — and not a little nauseating — to see which rats jump off the Good Ship Donald and when. The entire political year of 2017 has been a study in moral cowardice, with people who should know better abandoning their constituents, their principles, and the health of their democracy as long as they know Trump is in charge and they can advance their agendas.
Where’s our Jefferson Smithto voice our communal outrage and to remind us all how very, very far we’ve come from our hard-won ideals of governance?
Doesn’t any one of them want to come clean? Forget about Jimmy Stewart — where’s our Claude Rains? We could use a Silver Knight about now, no matter how tarnished.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.