COLUMN: The lost causes are not lost forever

This is my Sunday column for the Nov. 6, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. It’s an expanded version of the “Mr. Smith” essay I shared yesterday on KAXE’s “Between You and Me.” 

The lost causes are not lost forever
By Aaron J. Brown

In 1939 Frank Capra directed Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a heartwarming tale of a regular guy who finds himself appointed to the U.S. Senate. The movie depicts American government during the Great Depression, including political corruption, near-constant smoking, with whiskey and gin dispensed the way they give water to marathon runners.

Many archaic attitudes about gender and race sour the film for modern audiences, but in one regard the film remains hopeful. At the time, the idea of a scout leader and civic hero becoming an accidental senator who stands up to graft was merely outlandish. Today such a prospect is wholly impossible.

As “Mr. Smith” begins we learn that an unimpressive senator has died, leaving a vacancy to be filled by the governor of some western state. The governor, like the dead man and most of the politicians from this state, is a tool of a political machine that holds all the actual power. Our contemporary ears have to suspend disbelieve as the machine boss is a man named James Taylor, someone who does not sing “Fire and Rain,” but who almost seems able to control the weather with his vast newspaper and industrial empire.

They need a patsy to fill the seat until the next election while they finish up a bill to build a federal dam back in the home state, a shady deal that will net kickbacks for Taylor and his machine. The governor’s son is a Boy Ranger and recommends his dad appoint his patriotic, painfully earnest scout leader, Jefferson Smith. And Smith proves to be in over his head from day one, until he finally gets his bearings and proposes a bill to build a camp back home. His preferred site is the picturesque Willet Creek, the same place Taylor wants to put his boondoggle.

We learn early in the movie that Smith’s father, a small town newspaper publisher, was shot for printing populist editorials years ago. His father’s friend, Joe Paine, went on to become a senator himself. Paine has long since compromised his idealism for the pragmatic need to do business with the machine. The movie balances power with idealism. The machine tries to crush Smith with a false scandal and Smith fights back with a long-shot filibuster.

So why do I still like this movie? Why raise hope when it can sometimes seem so fragile in a hard world? Well, even as the circumstances of the movie seem out of reach, the film demonstrates what people need to do. It explains the moral imperative, which is not one bit different from now to then, or through the pantheon of human history. And this following scene, when Smith confronts Paine at the end of his very long speech, never fails to score an emotion hit for me:

[TEXT] “I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them; because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’… And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other. Yes, you even die for them. Like a man we both know, Mr. Paine.”

The movie would be different today in many ways, not least of which are the even more arcane rules and practices by which national debates are held in Congress.

“The filibuster scene sure would look a lot different [today],” wrote Chris, an online friend of mine, when I said I was writing about this. “Mr. Smith would walk into an empty chamber, file an objection to proceed, followed by 30 hours of nothing. Then the 24-hour cable networks and blogs would move on to something else, since the scandal his enemies tried to nail him on didn’t involve sex or race.”

Ultimately, the machine would have crushed Smith were it not for the conscience of Sen. Paine, who self-destructs in a rant of truth-telling at the end of the film.

At one point in the movie a hardened reporter reassures the overwhelmed Smith with the words, “Don’t worry, Senator. A hundred years from now no one will know the difference.” We’re not far from 100 years since the line was uttered and I’m still unable to determine if he was right.

I suppose I still like this movie because my heart tells me that you should fight and die for lost causes, and my head tells me that the long progression of time sets us all in our rightful place. This was as true for the characters in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as it is true today for the characters we see on the Sunday morning news shows.

Ultimately, the lost causes are doomed, until those with power realize their responsibility to fight for them. The promise of America is that we usually get there, eventually.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

A shout-out to my online pals Chris Saunders, Jacob Grippen and others on Facebook who contributed thoughts and audio to this project. Follow MinnesotaBrown on Facebook to join the conversation.

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