On October 16, 1939, Hollywood director Frank Capra premiered Mr. Smith Goes to Washington before an audience of US senators and House members, Supreme Court justices, journalists and assorted other DC dignitaries. It was an all-star event, sponsored by the National Press Club and held at Constitution Hall. Some 4,000 were in attendance.
They hated it.
Today, the movie is celebrated as the story of the earnest everyman Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart), who becomes a senator and struggles to fight graft on Capitol Hill.
But that night the senators were having none of it. Many stomped out of the theater, indignant at how they’d been portrayed in the movie—politicos literally turning their backs on young Jeff Smith as they backed the esteemed colleague at the heart of all the corruption.
Majority Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky described the picture to a reporter as a “grotesque distortion… it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!” Oh my.
Now a classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has long outlived Senator Barkley and his colleagues, a cinematic testament to idealism and the occasional triumph of good in Sodom-on-the-Potomac. And if you look at the Republicans in the Senate today, Barkley doth protest too much. These guys really are the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record.
What would Barkley and his 1939 colleagues make of this current GOP gang in the so-called “greatest deliberative body on earth?” Would they be appalled or look the other way? Today’s senators have sat in their marbled chamber during the impeachment trial ignoring the proof of Donald Trump’s perfidy, claiming he’s innocent and complaining that no new evidence or witnesses have been produced (even though they’re the very ones who have helped block admission of additional evidence and witnesses). They’ve been yawning, dozing and, honest-to-God, sitting at their desks playing with fidget spinners. I am not making this up.
The one bright light in all this has been the professionalism of the seven House impeachment managers, led by House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff, Democrat of California. Calmly laying out the case for impeachment with logic and skill, Rep. Schiff has been resolute in the face of threats and ad hominem attacks from Trump and his Republican menials. In so doing, he has, in the words of conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, “succeeded in lifting the hearts of his fellow Americans, stripping away the lies and vulgarity and corruption of this president and challenging us to be worthy of our democracy.”
Schiff has done all this against counterarguments from the president’s team of lawyers that amount to the classic “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” defense. He’s in a situation not unlike that faced by “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch: presenting an airtight case even though he knows the jury is dead set against him and already has made up its mind. But the fictional Finch was trying to prove a man’s innocence, Schiff a president’s guilt.
He told senators, “No one is really making the argument, ‘Donald Trump would never do such a thing,’ because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to.”
And as he closed Friday night, Schiff said, “Sometimes I think about how unforgiving history can be of our conduct. We can do a lifetime’s work, draft the most wonderful legislation, help our constituents, and yet we may be remembered for none of that. But for a single decision we may be remembered, affecting the course of our country. I believe this may be one of those moments. A moment we never thought we would see. A moment when our democracy was gravely threatened, and not from without but from within.”
Confronted with such eloquence, Trump and Republicans have reacted with fear and cowardice. When Schiff referenced a CBS News report that GOP senators had been told by the White House, “vote against the president and your head will be on a pike,” they erupted in a phony show of outrage just as blustering and hysterical as Senator Barkley’s back in 1939.
Some senators are using the “head on a pike” remark as a bogus excuse for voting once more against any new witnesses, should such a new motion even make it to the floor—claiming that Schiff’s remark had “lost” them, even though the story did not even originate with him. Perhaps the revelations reportedly in former national security advisor John Bolton’s new book—he alleges that Trump told him he was indeed freezing aid to Ukraine for personal political gain—will make a difference. But given their record of cult-like devotion to their Dear Leader, it’s doubtful.
So is it any wonder that Senate Republicans are in a collective snit about Schiff, terrified by his equanimity and effectiveness (qualities they lack), desperate to discredit him in any way possible?
With all the positive press Schiff has been getting, purely as a mental exercise, come July, if there were to be a deadlocked convention in Milwaukee—an extreme long shot, to be sure—ask yourself hypothetically how we could we do better as a compromise candidate than choosing Schiff.
While such a move would have the upside of driving Trainwreck Trump and the GOP even more nuts, it’s problematic. As Norman Solomon pointed out in Common Dreams in late October, Schiff supported the war in Iraq, Saudi airstrikes against Yemen, and “has rarely done anything contrary to the interests of the military-industrial complex.”
Not good, no question. But if—if!—it came down to it, ask how bad it might be to have as a nominee someone who, unlike Trump, would agree with the make-believe Senator Jefferson Smith: “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t. I can. And my children will.”
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer forMoyers & 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.