Call me a sentimental fool (pipe down out there) but I keep waiting for the big Frank Capra moment that, rationally, I know may never come—you know, like the climax of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when the corrupt, patrician senator played by Claude Rains, finally undone by the truth told by Senator Jefferson Smith (earnestly played by Jimmy Stewart), tries to shoot himself.
“I’m not fit to be a senator! I’m not fit to live!” he cries. “Every word that boy said about . . . me and graft and the rotten political corruption of my state is true!”
Yeah, well, in real life you and I know that’s probably not going to happen—at least for now. All you have to do is take one look at the Republican senators bloviating on Capitol Hill to know that among the lot of them any chance of self-examination or repentance or especially truth-telling is about as likely as Justin Bieber being named to the College of Cardinals.
Last week, as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation disaster has further unfolded, they all were behaving true to form. There’s Majority Leader McConnell, that sanctimonious mock turtle of prevarication and faux rectitude tut-tutting—inaccurately—about Democrats bringing forth an accusation of assault against a teenage Kavanaugh “at the 11th hour.” And here’s Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley doing his damnedest to make any hearing confrontation between Kavanaugh and his accuser—if it happens—as limited and belittling to her as possible.
Orrin Hatch says Christine Blasey Ford, “this woman, whoever she is, is mixed up . . . mistaken.” And Lindsey Graham snarkily asks who paid for her lie detector test and declares, ”This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh. I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Move along, nothing to see here, don’t bother your pretty little heads.
It’s all so classy—no wonder Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono told reporters last Tuesday, “I just want to say to the men in this country, just shut up and step up. Do the right thing, for a change.” (Mitch McConnell was passing by and she told him to do the right thing, too; it’s amazing he didn’t burst into flames.)
Their behavior has been disgraceful, and Hirono was right to call it out on ABC News last Wednesday, saying Grassley’s claims that the committee has done everything possible to contact Ford as “such bulls**t I can hardly stand it.”
Yes, it’s a regular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen down there in DC, each of them worth every penny to their corporate sponsors and the wealthy donors who love their GOP incumbents, so reliably pliant.
Which is why in the middle of this male misogynistic madness it’s refreshing that when it comes to campaign cash at least, over the last few days a couple of those rich contributors have been acting a little bit Capra-like, as if the mean old Lionel Barrymore banker of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was making some attempt to morph into the Jimmy Stewart of the good old Bailey Bros. Building & Loan.
They’ve embraced the kind of decency so lacking in the Kavanaugh debate and each decided to stop giving money to the Republican Party. These aren’t your run-of-the mill give a hundred bucks and get a MAGA hat type of donors. Leslie H. Wexner is the richest man in Ohio, the biggest Republican contributor in the state, CEO of L Brands, the company that owns Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. In 2015, he gave half a million to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and three months later his wife gave a million to Ohio Governor John Kasich.
“I just decided I’m no longer a Republican,” he told a panel on civility at the Columbus Partnership and YPO Leadership Summit. “I won’t support this nonsense in the Republican Party.”
Last year, Wexner said he felt “dirty” and “ashamed” by Donald Trump’s remarks after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Meanwhile, hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, New England’s biggest donor to the Republican Party—he gave nearly $3 million to Republicans in the 2016 elections—says that by Election Day, he may have given as much as $20 million to Democratic candidates; more, perhaps, than George Soros.
He told columnist Bari Weiss at The New York Times, “We need to turn the House and Senate as a check on Donald Trump and his runaway presidency. . . . I’m stretching far beyond what I usually do.”
Klarman thinks we’re in an “emergency,” that “democracy is at stake.” Trump is plagued by “ill temper, chronic impulsivity, limited attention span, ignorance of history and flawed judgment.”
Further, he’s angered by the massive tax cut and the addition of $1.5 trillion to the deficit. Republicans “were supposed to be the fiscally responsible party . . . Whatever irresponsible fiscal things the Democrats do won’t be worse than what the Republicans have already done.”
All of which brings us back to the august United States Senate and the powerful words and proposed deeds of a member who’s not one of the Republican majority or, gasp, a mossback male.
Over the past weeks, lost in the thicket of news about Trump, Kavanaugh, Robert Mueller, Paul Manafort, Russia and Hurricane Florence, Senator Elizabeth Warren has been steadfastly letting voters, corporate America and members of Congress know that that whether she runs for president or not, she has some serious changes in mind.
In a speech at the National Press Club last month, she noted that only eighteen percent of the American people trust their government to do the right thing because “our government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well-connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate, and we need to call this what it is—corruption, plain and simple.”
She proposed a set of reforms, including a lifetime ban on lobbying by ex-presidents and members of Congress, an end to the revolving door between government and business jobs, preventing federal legislators and White House staff from owning individual stocks (they could have government-supervised investment accounts) and a federal rule that all presidential candidates must release their tax returns. What a concept.
A week before, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, she outlined her Accountable Capitalism Act which proposes that “corporations with more than $1 billion in annual revenue . . . require corporate directors to consider the interests of all major corporate stakeholders—not only shareholders—in company decisions.”
The bill also would allow the employees of a company to elect at least forty percent of board members, and “at least 75% of directors and shareholders would need to approve before a corporation could make any political expenditures.”
Finally, just to add one more twist of the knife in the overindulged financial community’s back, the senior senator from Massachusetts used the tenth anniversary of the global fiscal meltdown to talk up her Ending Too Big to Jail Act—an attempt to stave off another crash that probably would be even more devastating than 2008. It would, she said, break up the big banks and “force law-breaking bankers to trade in their pin-striped suits for orange jumpsuits.”
With such talk about the land, it’s no coincidence that when a woman like Christine Blasey Ford comes forward to speak out against a man she says attacked her, a man close to receiving lifetime membership on our highest court, Senate Republican men are nonplussed and enraged, screaming because they may not get their way as they have for most of the last 20-plus months.
But that scream may be a death rattle. Warren and so many of the other women in Congress—not to mention the record-setting number of women running for office at every level of government this year—may be the ones to help pull us out of the swamp of Washington sleaze, corporate greed and, you should excuse the expression, male pattern blindness. They may be the actors who guide us toward that Frank Capra happy ending, the moment in the movie when those in charge finally have to face the truth of their deceit and rotten political corruption.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.