Power Player: How 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' Became the Standard By Which We Measure Political Newcomers

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, June 28, 2009

On a cold evening in January, days before taking the oath of office, President-elect Barack Obama paid a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Obama often cites the 16th president as a source of inspiration, so it was no surprise that he chose to ascend the steps and spend some reflective minutes at the statue. But there may have been another motivation, another cultural reference subtly invoked Seventy years earlier, another idealistic young politician came to the same spot to gather his thoughts before assuming his duties.

That would be Jefferson Smith, the newly minted U.S. senator played by Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which is still America's iconic tale of a principled outsider who sets out to change a corrupt and compromised political culture. Is it a coincidence that Obama, together with his wife and daughters, concluded a day of sightseeing as his fictional antecedent had done?

Maybe not.

"This weekend, the Obamas borrowed a page from 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' . . . tourists in a town they hope to transform," noted ABC's "Good Morning America," quickly spotting the analogy. Other observers also needed no coaching. When the inauguration ceremonies commenced, Chris Matthews, the excitable host of MSNBC and a movie fan, couldn't resist making the comparison. "It could be 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' here!" Matthews exclaimed. "But it's 'Mr. Obama Comes to Washington!'"

Granted, there are plenty of legitimate parallels between the real senator and the celluloid one. Both are compelling orators, both are tall, both are thin, both speak with a measured and precise diction. Both owe their appeal to the notion that outsider status and even rank inexperience can be powerful political virtues. After winning the election in November, Obama said that he hoped to fulfill "the simple hopes and common dreams of all Americans," invoking the very homespun ordinariness central to the Jefferson Smith identity.

Perhaps more than any other film, "Mr. Smith" has shaped the way Americans think about Washington and the politicians who come here. Its influence is rooted in the idea that a virtuous innocent can take on a rotten political system -- and win. At the same time, it pioneered the view of a lockstep Beltway mind-set that is disconnected from ordinary America, and argued that the way to preserve ethics and clear vision -- as Obama's advisers have stressed -- is to avoid becoming a prisoner of insider thinking.

Obama, wittingly or not, has joined a long line of candidates and elected officials -- everyone from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Ross Perot and Sarah Palin -- who either have invoked Jefferson Smith or have been compared to him. The film's stalwart central character remains the standard by which we measure any newcomer, particularly, it would seem, the one who now occupies the White House.

Yet many of the politicians who grasp at any opportunity to associate themselves with the upright Smith seem unaware of the controversy that initially surrounded the film. When "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" premiered in the nation's capital on Oct. 17, 1939, in a glittering event held at Constitution Hall, Washington -- official Washington, that is, including much of the media -- hated it.

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As the film's director, Frank Capra, began scouting locations and doing research for "Mr. Smith," he wanted to make the film true to the capital in every detail. Some scenes were actually filmed in what is now the Russell Senate Office Building -- the Senate's only outpost at the time -- where, after touring the landmarks of democracy, the wide-eyed Jefferson Smith finally locates his office. But the most dramatic action occurs in the U.S. Senate chamber at the Capitol, where Smith stages a showdown against venality during a 23-hour-long filibuster. Capra was not allowed to film inside the chamber, so he built an exact replica on the West Coast.

"Hollywood stages an amazing reproduction of the Senate!" gushed Life magazine, pointing out that the Senate chamber cost $100,000 and took 125 people six weeks to build. Replicas of the Lincoln Memorial and Union Station were also painstakingly constructed. To ensure they were accurate in every way, Capra hired a longtime Capitol hand named Jim Preston, who for more than 30 years had been the superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery. "Preston insisted that every detail of Washingtoniana be authentic," reported Life, which did a spread on the filming. "Bills and printed forms used were actual Senate documents brought from Congress."

According to Capra, Preston insisted that the faux Senate clock be padlocked -- allegedly, members would try to advance the hands so they could get out earlier. He also made sure that the desk that once belonged to Sen. Jefferson Davis showed the scar made by the bayonet of a Union soldier during the Civil War. He even calculated the average height, weight and age of a senator and selected actors based on those measurements; average gender went without saying.


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