Jimmy Stewart’s most famous role may be as Sen. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The 1939 film lionizes the filibuster as a “dramatic display of principled resilience.” The movie was a powerful counterpoint to the war in Europe.
Almost half of the Senate attended the premiere held in Constitution Hall, Washington, DC, on 17 October 1939.
The American public would love it. Beltway insiders, not so much.
For example, Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, called it “one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country” and tried to keep it from being released abroad. Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley (D-KY*) accused the movie of making Senators look like “a bunch of crooks.”
Harry Truman, then a first-term Senator from Missouri, told his wife that Frank Capra also criticized the Washington press corps:
The movie makes asses out of all senators that are not crooks. But it also shows up the correspondents and their true, drunken light.
Flash forward almost 50 years. The tables have turned; politicians clothe themselves in “outsider” garb.
On May 15, 1987, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) delivered a speech to the U.S. Senate posing the rhetorical question, “Has there ever been a better movie about the Senate than Frank Capra’s 1939 classic ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’?”
In-between: the longest single-speaker filibuster in U.S. Senate history. Its purpose: stop the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 which protected voting rights for Black Americans, rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment (1870).
After holding the floor for 24 hours, 18 minutes, Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC**) ended his filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act on 29 August 1957. His speech resulted in the first round-the-clock Senate session since 1954.
In 1948, Thurmond had developed a national profile when he ran for president as a third-party Dixiecrat. His infamous quote from that campaign:
“There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
That filibuster would help propel political blogs into the mainstream 45 years later, to “empower a new group of writers to challenge a storyline presented by mainstream media.”
On Thursday, 05 December 2002, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) saluted Thurmond at his 100th birthday celebration.
“I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the all these years either.”
Most news organizations ignored the comment.
Over at ABC news, Ed O’Keefe was familiar with Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party and its pro-segregationist platform. Because he thought it newsworthy, “ABC News aired a brief piece at 4.30 am EST Friday; it included a videotape of Lott’s comments about the run for the presidency.” The story was also included in the ABCNews.com daily news summary.
Two political bloggers “independently uncovered and reported the remarks on Friday.” Weekend traffic to blogs kept the story alive over the weekend.
At 12.16 am, Monday, December 9, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan stated on his blog that “Trent Lott Must Go.” Like his peers, Sullivan questioned the reticence exhibited by both politicians and media pundits. However on Monday several conservative commentators did speak out, often on blogs; they, too, questioned Lott’s suitability for the position of Senate Minority Leader.
Slowly, the Washington Post and New York Times began covering the story. On 19 December 2002, two weeks after the birthday celebration, President George W. Bush criticized Lott’s words, words he had also used in while introducing Thurmond in November 1980. (Speechwriters recycle words.)
On Friday, 20 December 2002, Lott resigned as the Senate Republican Leader.***
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor (17 December 2002), Linda Feldman suggested that Lott’s comments caught “the press off-guard:”
Longtime Washington observers see it as one of those moments when an event – Lott’s comment – catches the press off-guard and is then brought to life by a combination of forces: the Internet, mainstream reporters, outside activists, and political insiders themselves, including the White House and congressional Republicans.
If the event hadn’t been broadcast by C-Span, it’s possible the comment would have vanished into thin air. None of the dozen journalists at the party put it in their stories. Part of the problem, says Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, is that the journalists were there to cover a birthday party, not a speech on segregation. “The reporters took it in the context of a birthday party in which people wear funny hats and say stupid things…. They’re all too close to it.”
The filibuster remains a contentious tool in the Senate and no longer requires a Senator to “talk.” It requires only the threat of a filibuster.
In the intervening 20 years, blogging has moved mainstream. If this were to happen today, the medium that would elevate Lott’s remarks would be Twitter. Probably in real time.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Oscars®, including Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), Best Actor (Stewart), Best Screenplay (Sidney Buchman), and Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains and Harry Carey). Lewis R. Foster won the Academy Award® for Best Original Story.
But 1939 was to be Gone With The Wind‘s year; it won 10 Oscars®. Hattie McDaniel, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, was the first Black American to win an Academy Award®.
The other classic that year: The Wizard of Oz.
* Southern Democrats from 1939 would be Republicans today. Even then, the southern block was very different from the northern block.
**Thurmond was a member of the Democratic Party until 1964, when he joined the Republican Party. He ran for president in 1948 as the Dixiecrat candidate, winning in four states.
***Lott was the Senate Republican Leader, the minority party in the 2001-2003 Senate. In the November 2002 election, Republicans had gained control of the Senate. Lott would have been Majority Leader in January 2003 had he heen re-elected. Some news stories inaccurately referred to him as Majority Leader in December 2002.
- See Gill, Kathy. “How can we measure the influence of the blogosphere.” WWW2004, May 17–22, 2004, New York, NY USA.