Mr. Smith Goes to Public Choice
By David Henderson
I woke up early Friday morning and, rather than turning on ESPN, which is my wont, I surfed movies and found that “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” had started only a few minutes earlier. Once I start watching that movie, I’m hooked and I hang in for the whole thing. What struck me this time, which was probably about my third or fourth time, was how well Frank Capra nailed it on some of the most important things about public choice, things that I talk about in class when I teach a segment on public choice.
. The role of journalists. Notice how the journalists set up the naive Jefferson Smith on his first day in Washington, making him look like a total ass and quoting him out of context in the headlines so that his fellow Senators are already upset at him from the getgo.
. The role of special interests, in this case James Taylor, the guy in his home state who wants to benefit from an earmark for a dam. I think Capra did overstate the way Taylor could push politicians around but maybe not.
. The cynicism of Washington, which we see in the journalists and Jean Arthur’s character.
There’s one jarring thing that works in the movie but didn’t fit reality that closely. Harry Carey’s character, the President of the Senate, is a Will Rogers-type aw-shucks guy who enjoys seeing democracy in action. The President of the Senate is, in reality, the Vice-President of the United States. This didn’t ring true.
The following did work in the movie and probably is true to life: James Stewart’s character, Jefferson Smith, holds all the ideals equally–everything in the Abraham Lincoln quotes, the Declaration of Independence, etc., even though there are major contradictions among these various documents. But it still bugged me. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Capra was an immigrant and, like most immigrants, including me at first, he had a gee-whiz, this-is-a-great-country attitude that didn’t discern between the various contradictory philosophies.
One thing I got a kick out of was H.V. Kaltenborn, the famous newsman, who played himself. I hadn’t heard of him until I heard a record in the late 1960s of famous newscasts and speeches from 20th century U.S. history. I think the record was titled, “I Can Hear It Now.” I still remember Harry Truman’s imitation of Kaltenborn claiming late in the evening after the 1948 presidential election that Thomas Dewey would defeat Truman. It turns out that the Truman imitation of the staccato-voiced Kaltenborn is actually on video too. It’s at the 0:40 to 1:18 point.