In Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – the 1939 classic film about graft, greed and coercion in American politics – Jimmy Stewart – playing the protagonist, possessed of both naivete and moxie, in equal measures – lambastes his senatorial colleagues for their cynicism and corruption.
“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask,” he chimes. “Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see.”
Then, just before he collapses in exhaustion, he declares, “You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. . .Somebody will listen to me.”
There was something decidedly familiar about America’s real “Mr. Smith” who went down from Washington to deliver a speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, the other day. Familiar, and cinematic.
“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” U.S. President Barack Obama cried. “And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires. Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that the matter most to you – the people we represent.”
He pounded his pulpit like a preacher. “I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way,” he said. “Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it. Where I can’t act on my own, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents – anybody who can help – and enlist them in our efforts. Because the choices that we, the people, make now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century.”
Fade to black. Roll credits.
Mr. Obama is on his last legs, and he knows it. Almost nothing he has tried during his nearly six years in office has worked. His country is even more divided than it was when he first marched into the White House in January 2009 (Oprah’s happy tears, notwithstanding). So, when all else fails, cue up the teleprompter. It’s time for rhetoric.
Speechifying is what Mr. Obama does best. And his dwindling cohort of ardent admirers still appreciate his soaring orations. But when he talks about reviving the middle class in America, one wonders whether he has missed the lessons of history, whether he understands the principle of cause and effect.
Washington’s “gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference” of which he speaks is not chiefly responsible for the wreckage skilled wage-earners and professionals now face; it is the result of years, even decades, of systematically dismantling the institutions, regulations and protections the middle class needs in order to survive, let alone thrive. The crew that now “represents” the people – the neo-cons, lunatic libertarians, science deniers, sneering accommodators – can’t help themselves. That’s how they were raised in the me-first, avaricious era of the late 20th century.
For this sea-change in attitude, government, itself, has been largely liable. Through Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, lawmakers did everything they could to break unions, discourage small businesses, encourage corporate consolidation, and succor the most predatory instincts of free-market capitalism.
Some got rich. More got poor. Today, almost no one believes in the durability of so-called middle-class values. Why would they when the once-sturdy bargain between an employer and his employee can, and does, perish in an offshore agreement with a cheap, foreign supplier of human capital?
At the end of Capra’s ode to the working man, Mr. Smith triumphs, having taught his confreres a little something about decency and dignity. He even gets the girl.
But, of course, that was only a movie.