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Washington's Verdict: Hail to the Mr. Smith Myth

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 7, 1993

Find one good man. Put him in Washington. His naivete and decency could save this country.

Call it the Smith Myth, after fictional Jefferson Smith, who purified the Senate and won the gal in Frank Capra's happy, sappy movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Of all the tales Hollywood has spun about life in the capital -- not a very popular oeuvre, by and large -- Capra's is surely the most beloved. Now comes "Dave," the new Ivan Reitman treatment of the grand old theme.

Washington hails the return of the Smith Myth.

"I didn't think you could do another 'Mr. Smith,' " says Nina Totenberg, the influential correspondent on legal affairs for National Public Radio. She appears in a cameo role in "Dave," along with heaping handfuls of her fellow capital celebrities. "I didn't think you could do that kind of movie, one that makes you feel good about -- this sounds corny, I know -- America, and government, and public service."

"It's a really nice movie," says Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, who appears in the film as a member of "The McLaughlin Group." "It has a sweetness to it. It makes idealism look good, and I appreciate that."

"A this-is-the-way-it-could-be theme," says Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), whose precise rendition of his own loopy, stream-of-consciousness way of speaking is one of the film's most hilarious moments. "The idea of the right people getting into politics for the right reasons -- those aren't unattainable things."

The film opens tonight, and reviews in this week's newspapers suggest that these glowing assessments of "Dave" are widely shared. White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers gives it two thumbs up. Crusty old pols were seen wiping misty eyes during the recent Washington preview. "It's an idealized view, and that's not bad," says Frank Mankiewicz, cameo player and crusty old pol. And it is true: "Dave" is a sweet and entertaining film.

So it is not quite in the spirit of things to point out that the Smith Myth is politically wrongheaded. Philosophically irresponsible. Even a little dangerous, maybe.

In "Dave," the president is a bad man who, after a cerebral hemorrhage, is kept comatose in the White House basement. An identical-looking man, but good at heart, takes his place. The bad president is a politician. The good president is one of us. He summons his accountant, Murray, to help him "cut the budget a little," so he can find enough money to end homelessness.

Jump to Murray, hunched over a mess of paper, looking fatigued and unsettled. "It just doesn't add up," Murray says. "I mean, who does these books?"

Who, indeed. According to the Smith Myth, "these books" -- the federal budget, and by implication the entire operations of the U.S. government -- are a scandalous havoc wreaked on the American nation by evil people who have wormed their way into power. If only the country's essential goodness could be restored to influence, everything would be fine.

And this never happens through the established means. There is always a wild coincidence, or a beneficent scheme. In "Mr. Smith," for example, an untimely death briefly flummoxes the villainous political machine; in "Dave," it is a stroke, followed by a stroke of luck.

But what does any of that have to do with Washington? By far, the majority of the presidents and congresspersons roaming this city were chosen in an entirely straightforward manner. They won more votes, from more ordinary folks, than anyone else in the race.

And when these freely elected figures get to town, they spend themselves mightily trying to hold on to the votes of the people who elected them. They contort themselves, when they do, in the simple hope of winning more ballots the next time. They twitch to the impulses of the multitudes like frogs attached to a wire.

Anyone can see that. Ask Zoe Baird.

They're not ramming bad government down our throats. They're feeding us the slop we insist on. "Who does these books?" The American voters, that's who -- and the voters have shown time and again at the ballot box that they want more from the government than they are willing to pay for.

They want a superpower, and a space program, and generous federal pensions, and universal education, and environmental protection, and government health care for the poor and the aged, and military bases in every state, national parks and forests, tax breaks on their homes and on their day care and on their investments and their charitable contributions, price supports for unprofitable farmers, insured bank deposits, subsidies for oil drilling and for gold mining and for cattle grazing, fine highways, more prisons, cheap water and electricity, cures for AIDS and cancer..

And no new taxes.

The Smith Myth holds that bad government flows from the craven few, and not from the craven many. Is it any wonder that we love it? If only those politicians were more like us! That's so much nicer than admitting that our elected officials are, in fact, a darn good picture of America.

Hollywood tells us what we like to believe. The men who founded this country were not so pliant. After the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to explain why the best government would be one designed to move slowly, cautiously -- a government with gridlock built right in -- a government to protect us from ourselves.

They wrote: "The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers ... consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. ... Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. ... It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

This is a conservative point, in the grand Edmund Burkean sense of the word, so it is fitting that a Washington conservative should make it. "It is a whole lot harder to talk about why the quality of life is declining in America than to talk about getting rid of the jerk in the White House," says Robert Novak, the omnipresent Scrooge of Washington pundits. "This movie is dopey; it adds to the lightheadedness of the people. The idea that we have a homeless problem because of a few bad guys in Washington who hate the homeless -- that's dopey."

Since President Dave is a typical American, he favors myths over homework. He believes people are on the streets because a conniving man in the White House put them there.

Someone might tell Dave that many of the nation's homeless were put on the street by good people, decent people who were appalled by conditions in mental institutions. There was a naive, well-intended, Jefferson Smith sort of idea that the mentally ill would be better off on their own, or in small group homes. Then the craven side of democracy kicked in, and the voters declined to pay for individual treatment, or to welcome group homes into their neighborhoods.

We have met the enemy, and they are us.

You may wonder why Bob Novak would take a cameo part in a movie he so disdains. Turns out that, too, is human nature.

"I'm a ham," he says.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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