Mr. Smith is Back!

Published: January 17, 2023

By Jim Lichtman
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Sorry, fans. I’m on assignment. Hope to return next Tuesday.

Here’s what I like about politicians.

Every once in a while, we get heroes—people who stand up for what’s right and good and best not just for the people back home, but the entire country.

Margret Chase Smith, the Republican Senator from Maine, was such a hero when she stood up against the lies and tactics of her Senate colleague, Joseph R. McCarthy during the ’50s red scare.

Former Representative Liz Cheney is a modern-day equivalent, who, along with another former colleague, Adam Kinzinger sat on the Jan. 6 Committee investigating the causes of the insurrection. For all three, honesty, integrity, and accountability are not just words; they’re actions.

Here’s what I don’t like about politicians.

Many scheme, lie and work the system for their own ends. Character isn’t part of their vocabulary.

Think Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the oldest schemers in the Senate who, after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said, with a smile: “One of my proudest moments was when I told Obama, ‘You will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy.”

Kevin McCarthy is another sellout.

You all know this but it bears repeating: After the January 6 attack on the Capitol, McCarthy stood in the hallowed chamber of the House and unflinchingly laid responsibility for the attack on our democracy at the feet of Donald Trump. What happened next reminds me of a line from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Claude Rains plays Senator Joseph Paine from a great midwestern state. He’s a hero to the folks back home because he delivers just enough to make everyone love him. In the Senate, however, he’s one of the good ol’ boys because he knows how to work the system, and for Paine, that system begins and ends with Jim Taylor, the big boss and swindler in his state.

After the unexpected death of the state’s second senator, Jimmy Stewart, playing the young idealist Jefferson Smith, is given a temporary appointment. Paine urges the novice to get involved in the process. When Smith submits a bill for a boy’s camp in the precise location where a dam is planned that would result in millions for Taylor and his cronies, Paine literally jumps out of his seat. A bill for the dam is ready to be voted on the following day.

Boss Taylor tries to buy Smith by offering him a permanent seat in the Senate. But Smith isn’t buying. When Taylor explains that Joe Paine “has been taking my advice for years,” Smith looks to his hero for the truth.

“I know how you feel, Jeff,” Paine tells him. “Thirty years ago – I had those ideals, too. I was you. I had to make the decision you were asked to make today. And I compromised – yes! So that all these years I could stay in that Senate – and serve the people in a thousand honest ways! I’ve had to compromise, had to play ball. Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are. Tomorrow, you stay away from it.”

McCarthy is Sen. Paine without the mournful regret. But here’s the advice to Smith from Paine that echoes today: “Great powers are behind it, and they’ll destroy you before you can even get started.”

After his Smith-like floor speech, McCarthy realizes he’s in big trouble with the big boss down in Mar-a-Lago. So, he flies down, begs forgiveness, and has his picture taken standing next to the big boss.

Why?

Because McCarthy’s dream job was House Speaker. Two weeks ago, he got what he wanted, due in no small part to the power of Donald Trump, and a laundry list of compromises to the crazies in his party. (What happens next is anyone’s guess.)

Will we ever see political heroes like Cheney and Kinzinger?

Possibly.

Meet the new Mr. Smith: Jaylen Smith, the youngest black mayor in America.

He’s eighteen, lives with his parents, has been involved in high school student government, and wants to bring his ideas to the city of his birth, Earle, Arkansas, population: 1,785.

“Why should I have to go somewhere else to be great when I can be great right here in Earle, Arkansas? I’m kind of a go-getter,” Smith said. “When I was in high school, I was always told no, but I always kept pushing it because I knew there was someone that was waiting to tell me yes.”

Sounds a little like Jefferson Smith.

“Mr. Smith won over voters by talking about patching up streets, tearing down dilapidated buildings, and lifting up the community’s morale,” The New York Times writes.

When the vote was tabulated, “Smith won 235 votes,” The Washington Post reported. “His opponent, Nemi Matthews, Sr., “the city’s longtime streets superintendent only garnered 183 votes,” and the kicker, “Matthews congratulated Smith on Facebook.”

What Smith has, what Congress needs, is the optimism to work for the benefit of the people, not themselves.

After learning that his mentor, Joe Paine lacked the integrity he thought he had, Smith’s chief of staff reminds him what’s important.

“You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness, and this country could use some of that.”

That’s the message of hope I get from Jaylen Smith.

That’s a message of hope we all need.

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