For millions of Americans, the final word on the filibuster is Frank Capra s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The 1939 film depicts 24 hours of uninterrupted oratory by a heroic junior Senator, who ultimately succeeds in defeating a corrupt political machine. But Slate senior writer Tim Noah tells Brooke that Mr. Smith embodies not only an outdated portrayal of the filibuster, but perhaps the biggest obstacle to eliminating the legislative maneuver altogether.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Monday, Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Bill Frist agreed not to abolish the filibuster, for the moment, if the Democrats agreed not to use it against some judicial nominees. But John Bolton isn't a judicial nominee. He's the president's pick for UN ambassador. So, on Thursday, when he came up for a vote, Democrats stalled it with a filibuster. Now, until the recent controversy, the filibuster was just an arcane Senate maneuver. True, Huey Long and Strom Thurmond used it to make history, but it took a senator named Jefferson Smith to make Hollywood magic. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: Senator Smith has now talked for 23 hours and 16 minutes. It is the most unusual and spectacular thing in the Senate annals. One lone and simple American holding the greatest floor in the land.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim Noah, who writes the Chatterbox column for Slate, is the rare liberal who would be glad to see the end of the filibuster. But when he tries to make his case, he finds he runs smack up against Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 66 years old and still an immovable object.
TIMOTHY NOAH: Well, it's a great argument-stopper. You're arguing that the filibuster ought to be done away with; you're citing the terrible uses it was put to, to block civil rights legislation, and someone will say what about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? And of course, the first part of the answer is, well Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a movie, it's not real life.
JIMMY STEWART/MR. SMITH: I've got a few things I want to say to this body. I tried to say them once before, and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I'd like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I'm not going to leave this body until I do get them said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Essentially, in the film, Mr. Smith was being silenced by his colleagues. In fact, he was going to be censured and tossed out of the Senate, and he took recourse in the filibuster. It was the only way he could get people to hear what he had to say. You say even that's a fallacy.
TIMOTHY NOAH: Yes. Well, we get this false notion from Mr. Smith that filibusters today are all about giving speeches, where you're making your case, and that hasn't been the routine, anyway, for quite some time. Today, when the Senate leadership learns that the other side is planning a filibuster against a bill, they don't try and press it and have the speechifying occur. They skip it and go on to the next bill.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What we know about Mr. Smith is he's a little guy. He's not part of anybody's machine. Could a minority of one, like Mr. Smith, actually have an impact using the filibuster?
TIMOTHY NOAH: Today, there is a cloture requirement. If you have 60 votes, you can stop a filibuster. That actually wasn't true before World War I. In the grand old deliberative days, if one person had an objection to a bill, even if the other 99 people were in favor of the bill, they had to sit and listen to the speech. But that was changed after World War 1.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you saying, then, that in 1939, when Mr. Smith was produced, the Senate could have called cloture on him right then and there?
TIMOTHY NOAH: [LAUGHS] Maybe they didn't have the votes. I don't know why they didn't call cloture, but it's a good point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They walked out on him, all of them.
SENATOR: I'm sick and tired of this contemptible young man, and I refuse to stay here and listen to him any longer. I hope every member of this body feels as I do. [SHOUTING: Yield the floor! Etc.]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was really interested in your column when you noted that when the film premiered in 1939 at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall, it got an overwhelmingly hostile reception?
TIMOTHY NOAH: Yes, it's fascinating, because the movie is a great sacred cow today. In fact, I, I joked in my column that what really brought about the compromise in the filibuster was the threat by both Democrats and Republicans to screen the movie [LAUGHTER] in the capitol. But very different reception back in 1939. The premiere was in Washington, and Capra wrote in his autobiography that about a third of the audience walked out on the film. He was called a villainous Hollywood traducer, he writes, and he talks about an interview that the Christian Science Monitor had with Alben Barkley, who was the Senate majority leader, and they were supposed to be talking about the debate over entering World War II, but Barkley changed the topic to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and wanted to fulminate endlessly about it. He said "it was as grotesque as anything I have ever seen." What interested me about Barkley's comments retrospectively is how in 1939, if you were a Senate majority leader and you saw a movie like this, your natural inclination was to identify with the body as a whole, the Senate. Today, of course, it would never occur to a senator, even a Senate majority leader, I think, to identify with anyone other than the rebellious Mr. Smith, and that tells you a lot about how our politics have changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it's pretty interesting, when you talk about identification with Mr. Smith, that he was a scout leader, that character, and in the midst of this filibuster fight, Senator Frist actually was offering legislation to protect his boy ranger scouts. [LAUGHTER]
TIMOTHY NOAH: I didn't know that. I - that sounds to me like a very conscious attempt to summon the spirit of the movie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim, thank you very much.
TIMOTHY NOAH: Thanks a lot, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy Noah writes the Chatterbox column for Slate.
REPORTER: But those tired boy ranger legs are buckling. Bleary-eyed, voice gone, he can't go on much longer, and all official Washington is here to be in on the kill. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Nick Gilewicz. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.