Do you remember the old James Stewart movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”? Probably few of you recall seeing it when it came out in black-and-white in the late 1930s but it has been a popular movie on television for many years, often airing around the holiday season since it evokes sentiments of justice, idealism and good winning over evil. “Jefferson Smith” (played by Stewart) goes to the nation’s capitol to work with his childhood hero only to discover the many shortcomings of the political process. True to Hollywood, good wins out in the end, despite attempts to corrupt Smith at first and then to cover him in scandal.
Stewart and Jean Arthur (lead roles in the movie)
According to the IMBd website, the director - Frank Capra - has “received many letters over the years from individuals who were inspired by the film to take up politics.” The movie surely continues to inspire idealists who want to serve their country through bettering the system from the inside out by enduring all the humiliation of running for office in order to “bring democracy back to the people.”
But the system continuously devolves into gridlock and dysfunction as each new rookie politician succumbs to the toxicity and corruption they encounter in city, state or national politics.
I have been writing about system dysfunction in Washington for several years and have viewed it as a “systems problem,” which I define as “when well-meaning, competent people keep trying to correct the problem and it keeps getting worse.”
The other day I happened to catch an interview of journalist Mark Leibovich on his latest book, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital. Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, based in Washington. In 2011, The New Republic named him one of Washington’s “Most Powerful Least Famous” people whose “political writing is among the finest and most feared.”
Leibovich provided a detailed account of how Washington has been grossly distorted by the relatively recent (last twenty years or so) explosion of money in politics, turning the city into “a mecca for glitz, gold and greed” according to PBS. The book is exposing the perverse and pervasive narcissism of Washington’s ruling class, again according to PBS. He spoke about how “money rules the day and status is determined by who you know.”
Watching the interview on TV, what caught my ear was his reference to the “Mr. Smith” movie. He talked about how most of us think people go to Washington to serve the people, like Mr. Smith did in the movie, like the way it is supposed to be in the “greatest democracy in the world.” “However,” he said “now people go to Washington to get rich, to make money.”
While the system is indeed dysfunctional and needs a major overhaul, perhaps even a complete rebuild, people are not as much the victims of “the system” as I have been asserting. Many are. Leibovich identifies a good many from both parties who are contributing to the dysfunction and ripping off “We the People” from what we are entitled to and lining their pockets through greed and more greed.
I am writing this while raw with this new recognition/perspective, feeling more outrage, even at some of my former heroes whose haloes have become tarnished as a result of this revelation. I’m feeling more disappointment, more sadness and more hurt than I ever have over the state of our nation.
As I expressed in my email to Leibovich, my hope is that enough people who can do something about this will become enraged enough to actually do something about it and make it illegal for politicians to get rich at the expense of the people who elect them.