The Battle Over The Filibuster Counters The Myth Of ‘Mr. Smith’

The Battle Over The Filibuster Counters The Myth Of ‘Mr. Smith’
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. VA.) seemingly dashed any hopes of Democrats abolishing the filibuster anytime soon when he wrote last week that the legislative maneuver was a “critical tool” to protecting “our democratic form of government.”

That’s a far different view than that of former President  Barack Obama, who called it a “Jim Crow relic,” along with a slew of other critics.

But an idealized view of the filibuster as a force for good isn’t an outlier; it’s the way that many students, of past generations and even today, are first exposed to it, via the 1939 Frank Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

As much of a relic as the movie is, the climatic scene, in which Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) stages a nearly 24- hour filibuster against corruption and back-room dealing among his colleagues, has endured. It’s still used as a teaching tool and, in coverage of the latest debate, comes up as a common pop culture reference point. It’s helped shape perceptions of what a filibuster is, and perhaps has even helped it survive.

“I think it has played an enormous role in protecting the filibuster because it portrayed it in a favorable light,” says Adam Jentleson, the author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid. He says that the movie comes up in just about every interview he does and “a big part of the current debate is, ’This is not what the filibuster is anymore.’”

Ben Mankiewicz, host of Turner Classic Movies, says that the movie “has probably had as big of an impact on the public consciousness of the filibuster as anything, as it romanticized it. It’s Jimmy Stewart, for crying out loud, and it is his defining role.”

While the filibuster has proven useful at times, Mankiewicz says, the defining filibuster in history was from Strom Thurmond, who in 1957 spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to try to block that year’s landmark civil rights bill which, despite his obstruction, ultimately passed. “Jimmy Stewart takes a stand against the abuse of power and injustice, and yet the signature filibuster in history was to protect abuse of power and stand for injustice,” Mankiewicz says.

Moreover, the Jefferson Smith- or Strom Thurmond- type of talking filibuster are rarities, as it has evolved into the mere threat of one, with a 60-vote threshold needed for cloture, or ending debate.

“No one would get excited about that movie where Jimmy Stewart fights cloture,” Mankiewicz quips.

Former Senate historian Don Ritchie recalls many students coming to tour with their impressions of Senate procedure formed by the movie. But he said that even new members of the Senate, aspiring Mr. Smiths, would have to face the reality of what it was.

“It is a compelling movie, and Jimmy Stewart is just terrific as a naive senator, but very rarely do we have these standup filibusters, and very rarely are they as impassioned as Jimmy Stewart,” Ritchie says. Ted Cruz’s nearly round-the-clock talk-a-thon in 2013 is often cited as an example of a recent filibuster, even though it technically wasn’t one. A standout memory isn’t so much what he said against Obamacare, the purpose of his marathon speech, but his reading of Green Eggs and Ham.

When he was a senator from New York, Al D’Amato got to be known for his filibusters, taking place in the years that he was up for reelection, in which he read the D.C. phone book and sang South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).

“There is a lot of stage acting that goes on, but for the most part, it doesn’t change the outcome,” Ritchie says.

The Senate itself has embraced the movie, featuring it on a page of its website’s history of the legislative tactic. The Senate even has in its collection one of the replica desks that was used to recreate the chamber, as Capra wasn’t allowed to shoot there.

That’s not quite the D.C. reception the movie in 1939, after it had its splashy world premiere at Constitution Hall. One of the attendees, Harry Truman, complained in a letter to his wife Bess, “It makes asses out of all senators who are not crooks. But it also shows up the correspondents in their true drunken light too.”

Other senators, including Majority Leader Alben Barkley, were irate over the cynical way that the movie portrayed the Senate. As Joseph McBride chronicles in his biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, the controversy “helped rally those forces in Washington determined to bring antitrust actions against the film industry,” even if the full extent of the fallout may have been a bit embellished through the years.

The movie was a hit. What remains a bit murky, though, is just how the filibuster became its climatic moment.

Officially, it’s based on an unpublished story, The Gentleman from Montana, by Lewis R. Foster, who went on to win the movie’s only Oscar (it was a competitive year, to say the least). As McBride details, there are questions as to just how original the story was. Shortly before the release of Mr. Smith, Columbia snatched up the rights to an earlier, Pulitzer Prize winning play by Maxwell Anderson, Both Your Houses, after the studio discovered it had a “remarkably similar plot.”

McBride said via email that Both Your Houses contains “the basic plot and characters but not the filibuster.” There is, however, as suggestion of one, as when a senator says to the lead, Mr. Smith-like character, “Are you trying to filibuster the whole damn day away?”

What is certain is that the filibuster, even at the time that Mr. Smith’s release, already had a history associated with blocking civil rights legislation. Despite a poll showing huge public support for anti-lynching legislation in 1937, southern senators successfully filibustered the bill and it was sidelined the following year.

Survey data shows that majorities did not support the filibuster in the years following the release of the movie, notes Gregory Wawro, professor of political science at Columbia University, nor did they during the epic filibuster battles over civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

Mr. Smith certainly is central to the mythology of the Senate,” he says via e-mail. He’s shown it in his courses on Congress because it has a fairly accurate portrayal of “some of the finer points of procedural conflict in the Senate,” while also having masterful storytelling.

“Presumably, when Mr. Smith is referenced in discussions about the filibuster, it leads more people who haven’t seen it to watch it, which helps to keep it as a central part of debates about filibusters,” he says.

Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton, is a bit more skeptical than others on the impact that real or celluloid filibusters have had on public perceptions. Via email, he notes that “for many if not most Americans, the image of the filibuster is probably pretty hazy. We’re not a particular informed historical culture, as much as we can argue about history. What I can say is that neither Jimmy Stewart nor Strom Thurmond capture the realities of a filibuster today, when all a senator has to do is send an email and the filibuster is done. Hence, in part, the launching of the number of filibusters into the stratosphere over the last fifteen years.”

Since then, battle lines have changed, as supporters argue that the filibuster has been abused as a tactic to block any piece of consequential legislation.

People for the American Way, co-founded by Norman Lear, is among the groups calling for the filibuster to be abolished. Back in 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate, it waged a $5 million ad campaign to preserve it. Its president at the time, Ralph Neas, argued then that the filibuster “forces Republicans and Democrats to sit down and work things out.” That’s actually one of Manchin’s points, while critics argue the opposite.

Not surprisingly, a star figure in the 2005 campaign was Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith, who, in the last line of the spot, gives a reminder of what a filibuster is, not how it’s been used. “I’ve got a piece to speak, and blow hot or cold, I’m gonna speak it.”