Mr. Smith's Lost Cause

By Richard Cohen
Friday, May 13, 2005

Where's Frank Capra when you need him?

Pity he is no longer around, because the great Hollywood director ("It's a Wonderful Life," "It Happened One Night") is just the sort of guy congressional Democrats need at the moment. He was the man, after all, who gave us "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which Jimmy Stewart played Jefferson Smith, the senator who held the floor for nearly 24 (movie) hours, losing his consciousness but never his audience and, in the process, introducing Americans to a wonderful parliamentary procedure: the filibuster. It should take a bow.

Capra knew he was making a movie about both a man and, of all things, a parliamentary maneuver. He came to Washington to do his research and soon looked up Jim Preston, the longtime superintendent of the Senate press galleries, who had become assistant administrator of the National Archives. The man knew everything.

"They tell me that you've kept track of everything the Senate has done for the past several decades," Capra said, according to a contemporary newspaper account. Preston demurred. Not everything, he said, just the interesting things -- and he pointed to a shelf of bound notebooks. "My five-foot diary," he said.

"One of these books isn't, by any chance, called 'Filibusters I Have Known,' is it?" Capra asked.

"Whereupon it developed that Preston was an admirer of filibusters and filibustering," the newspaper recorded. Capra put Preston on the payroll.

Now, of course, the filibuster is being slowly marched to the procedural gallows. Senate Republicans, as ignorant of cinema history as they are determined to roll over the minority Democrats, are threatening to do away with this hallowed senatorial procedure so that seven of George Bush's judicial appointments can be confirmed. They are the Odious Seven, men and women of such extreme views on matters such as abortion or the role of government that they -- and they alone of 229 judicial appointments the president has made -- are deemed unworthy by the Democrats to be elevated to the federal bench. So the Democrats, being only 44 of the Senate's 100 members, have threatened to filibuster each one. The Republicans have responded by saying they will do away with the filibuster entirely for judicial nominations. This is called "the nuclear option" -- a bit of mutually assured destruction for American politics.

The president claims he should have the judges he wants because he won the last election. He has a mandate, he alleges, but if so, it is an insubstantial one -- a bit more than 2 percent of the popular vote. When you compare that with recent second-term victories -- FDR, who won by 24.3 percentage points; Ike, by 15.4; LBJ, by 22.6; Nixon, by 23.2; Reagan, by 18.2; Clinton, by 8.5 -- it becomes clear that Bush's mandate is, like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a figment of his imagination. His mandate, such as it is, should be to realize he ain't got one.

I concede that I was not always so kindly disposed toward the filibuster. There was a time when it was used to thwart civil rights legislation and other legislative acts of basic decency. Now, though, it is being brandished to block a handful of prospective judges from narrowing those hard-earned rights. In some cases, the nominees have views so extreme they suggest severe vitamin deficiencies in childhood or early trauma to the head. One of the nominees, Priscilla Owen of Texas, issued opinions that even Alberto Gonzales, Bush's own attorney general but once her colleague on the Texas Supreme Court, faulted as "an unconscionable act of judicial activism." Unconscionable then, unconfirmable now.

The sensible people of Washington are urging both sides to compromise -- especially the Democrats. Outnumbered and, at this point, outmaneuvered, they are told they are fighting for a lost cause. But lost causes were precisely what Sen. Jefferson Smith relished. "All you people don't know about lost causes," he says 23 hours and 16 minutes into his filibuster. Directing his remarks to his chief adversary, Sen. Joseph Paine, he continues, "Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for."

In the end, Smith wins, Paine loses, and a movie is only a movie. But this one endures, not just because of Stewart's great performance -- okay, it's a bit over the top -- but also because Capra, an immigrant from Sicily, had the outsider's keen eye for the average American's affinity for underdogs and lost causes. In this case, Senate Democrats are the underdogs, their odds long indeed. In a Capra movie, they would not lose -- but if they do, then so do we all.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company