I stayed up late last night to watch “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Even though I enjoy old movies, for some reason I had never seen this Frank Capra classic (except for the climactic speech and collapse scene).
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, young “Boy Ranger” leader, Jeff Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart), is chosen by the governor of his state to finish the term of the Senator who has recently passed away. Smith is chosen in an effort to satisfy populist demands as well as provide an easily-manipulated stooge for the corrupt political machine of the state.
The wide-eyed, idealistic young senator arrives in Washington ready to play the part but soon finds himself at odds with his senior senator and other colleagues. Upon discovering that they are about to capitalize on a corrupt Public Works bill, Smith works to expose and defeat the political machine. Refusing to accept a bribe to compromise, he must utilize the filibuster to persuade the Senate and rally the people of his state to his side.
Several things about this film resonated with me: the fresh-faced idealistic optimism about our country and its government; the understanding of the necessary quid-pro-quo of politics coupled with a distaste for its abuse; the ultimate triumph of one man willing to stand unwaveringly by his principles.
I find myself caught in a quandary between optimism regarding our ideals of our system and pessimism over the reality of it. Though the senior Senator in “Mr. Smith” compromised with a corrupt political boss, there is no question that legitimate compromise is the very nature of politics. Still, something within me riles at leaders who say one thing then use compromise as their excuse for doing the opposite.
No doubt many of our elected officials face the same dilemma: idealism vs. realism. It’s a no-win situation. If they bow to the reality of compromise in order to accomplish a truly bi-partisan goal, they are crucified for giving up their principles. If they stand by their principles and refuse to cooperate with those on the other side of the aisle, they are branded as right (or left) wing extremists.
Until I’ve reconciled this conflict in my own mind, I’m trying to be a little more understanding of the Congressmen who daily face it on a deeper level than I ever will.