Monday, November 17, 2008

The Greatest Guy I Know

My life has been one largely devoid of positive male role models. Fortunately, I intuitively have always had the presence of mind to realize that their actions were not to be mimicked. Perhaps for this reason, I often look to fictional characters to provide my moral compass. Of all the great men in made-up history that I have dedicated my life to emulating, one stands above all others.

His name is Jefferson Smith, junior Senator of an unknown state. He was played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

The movie is nearly 70 years old at the time of this writing. It was one of Capra's moodier films, depicting not the good of the common man, but rather the struggle of a single individual. In Mr. Smith, Jefferson Smith is a man with an unshakable belief in his country, and, more importantly, in the truth.

For those of you whom have not seen the 1939 classic, I will provide a synopsis. A Senator from an unnamed state in the union dies at the beginning of the film, news we are given from the state's governor. This is bad news, for it is on the eve of the Senate's vote on a deficiency bill meant to bolster public works throughout the country. Hidden in the lengthy bill, however, is a plan to build a dam in the state on land secretly owned by media mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold), whom has the governor and several other government officials in his back pocket. Taylor orders the governor (Guy Kibbee) to appoint a political stooge to take up the empty office. The governor's constituents, however, demand a liberal reformer be given the post. The governor's own sons insist he has to appoint Jefferson Smith, the leader of the state's Boy Rangers and a local hero. Conflicted, the governor flips a coin. It lands on its side, propped up against a newspaper next to an article about Smith. The governor makes his decision.

Convincing Taylor that Smith is an ideal decision, the governor goes forward with the plan. He sells Smith as young and naive, too inept to possibly ask any questions that could prevent their scheme from moving forward. Taylor is ultimately swayed by the opinion of another Senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Paine is held in highest esteem in the Senate, and is also Taylor's most powerful crony. Unbeknownst to Paine, Smith is the son of his dearest friend, a journalist whom was killed for attempting to break up a corrupt mining syndicate. A conversation between Smith and Paine on their train ride to D.C. reveals that Smith reveres Paine, knowing only the stories of the lost-cause championing lawyer that his father told him about.

Once in D.C., the wide-eyed Smith wanders away from his handlers and takes a bus tour of the city. Overwhelmed by the monuments and history, he spends hours missing, simply taking in the sites of the country he loves. When he finally makes his way to his office, he meets his wise-to-the-world secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), and her friend, the reporter Diz (Thomas Mitchell). Saunders believes Smith to be little more than a high-speaking con man, and can't believe anyone would be taken in by his professed patriotism. She arranges a press conference to humiliate Smith, which succeeds when the press takes his every word out of context. The papers they print are a scandal in the Senate, and when he sees what came of his interviews, Smith tracks down every reporter he can find and punches them square in the face.

He eventually tracks one to a reporter's lounge, where he is overwhelmed by the other journalists and forced to sit down. There, Diz confronts him with the facts; the stories they told about him being inept and an embarassment were true. He's there as a chair ornament, to sit down and shut up and vote whichever way Joseph Paine tells him to vote. Dejected, Smith slinks away, finding his way to Senator Paine's office and expressing what he's just learned. Paine, seeking to distract Smith from trying to learn anything about the going-ons around him, suggests that Smith write a bill. The idea invigorates Smith, who immediately rushes back to his office to find Saunders and put idea to paper. As he describes his plan for a national boys club where boys from all over the country can come together and learn about nature, respecting others, and love for America, Saunders realizes he's more than just talk. She also realizes that the location he's suggesting for the boys club falls square over the plot of land Taylor and Paine are planning to use for their dam-building scheme. She remains silent on the issue, and continues to draft Smith's bill.

On the Senate floor, Smith proposes his bill. The idea is applauded by the Senate, but Paine is aghast when Smith mentions where the boys club would be built. He immediately goes to Taylor, who flies out to Washington the next day. In the meantime, Paine uses his own beautiful daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn) to take Smith out for the day so he won't be on the Senate floor when the deficiency bill is read. Saunders, now conflicted between her growing affection for Smith and her need to look out for herself, gets drunk, then confronts Smith with the insanity of trying to do good in the Senate in the face of such wholesale corruption. She quits, leaving with a suitcase full of her belongings and Diz, claiming she'll do a lot for a dollar, but she won't be party to murder. Saunders knows that is exactly the response to Smith that Taylor has in mind; character assassination.

Smith goes to Paine with what Saunders revealed to him, and Paine confesses to being Taylor's man. He admits he worked in Taylor's interests for the last twenty years, but in that time he was able to to help his state in thousands of legitimate, honest ways, giving it the lowest unemployment and highest government grants. He tells Smith he's been living in a boy's world, and he should go back there, that he's unprepared for how the world really works. Smith refuses to compromise his morals, and soon finds himself face-to-face with Taylor himself. Taylor offers Smith the world if he plays ball; high appointments in business, a guaranteed re-election into the Senate, anything he wants. Smith again refuses. Taylor tells Paine to get rid of the boy, but Paine balks at the idea of destroying the son of his best friend. The media mogul reminds Paine just how much he has over the Senator, and Paine capitulates.

What follows in the conclusion of the film is a sequence of events I hate to ruin. There are some who still haven't seen the 70-year-old film, and to reveal the climax would be to take away from the experience. I've explained enough of the action to resume my original point.

Jefferson Smith was Capra's greatest hero. One man against a massive, corrupt political machine who stood his ground and refused to compromise. He knew the difference between right and wrong, and even moreso, between right and easy. He was a man who would not be discouraged, would not stop believing in the American way, and would not back down against impossible odds. Jefferson Smith is, in many ways, the ideal man. He is my role model, and to live a life like Smith is a goal I find worth working towards.

Thus, it was surprising and affirming to find that Jefferson Smith was alive and well, and an actual person.

I do know a person who refuses to compromise his morals. I know a man who would not back off against his personal ideals and what he knows is right, even in the face of intense pressure from his peers and society. I know someone that loves his state and his country, cherishes his friends, and honors the truth. I know a person that I strive to be like, and whose personal philosophy I believe all Americans, and all people everywhere, could benefit from subscribing to. I found my Jefferson Smith.

His name is Jason Schlafstein, and he's the greatest guy I know. And I sincerely hope he watches the movie I described, because I'm sure he'll find, as I did, that it was Frank Capra basing a character off of a man who wouldn't be born for another 47 years.

Here's to you, Jeff. May we all be more like you, and the world be a better place for it.

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