I only barely got in to see the sold-out St. Louis premiere of Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, at the Tivoli Theater through this weekend. I wasn't expecting a political documentary about a losing politician in a mid-tier local race to sell out. That's because it didn't occur to me that everybody who was in the film would be there, plus everybody from Jeff Smith's current (and somewhat more plausible) campaign for state senate. With Smith (and the director of the documentary, Frank Popper) there to answer questions afterward and to stump hard for people to come attend a campaign get-together in the nightclub across the street, it felt as much like a Smith in '06 campaign rally as it did a film premiere.
During the question and answer session afterward, Jeff Smith said something (quoting one of his current campaign staff) that really sums up this whole movie: "I just graduated from Washington University with a degree in political science, I learned more about politics in 6 weeks (I think that's how long? I didn't take notes) on this campaign than I did in four years of college." I, for one, wasn't surprised. I consider it faintly scandalous that you can get a degree in Political Science at prestigious colleges in this country without spending 15 minutes on a phone bank, without making one fund-raising phone call, without doing one literature drop, without attending a single township club meeting, without ever even seeing a pancake breakfast let alone working one, without in fact doing one single thing that relates to actually getting a candidate nominated or elected or a proposition passed or defeated. That's right, you can get a degree in political science without even once actually engaging in politics. Frightening. But obviously true, or else Jeff Smith wouldn't have been able to collect so many of his college students and their friends and work them 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for so many months in a row, while chasing a fantasy: the fantasy that somebody with no political resumé at all, who's never run for so much as a dog catcher's job, who's never even worked on political campaigns before, can get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, no matter how good his ideas are. As I put it to him during the Q&A, being a US Congressman is the entry-level job to the Big Time in US politics, and it's almost impossible to start at the top. He had a good answer for why he thought it was worth it: it was only the 2nd time in over 50 years that there was no incumbent running in his US congressional district, which convinced him that if it was even possible to win an election the old fashioned (pre-WWII) way of knocking on every door in the district any more, this was going to be his only chance to try it. I'm not sure he's right. And I'm not sure he proved or disproved his point. But between the fact that he had an empty resumé other than having been the founder of a charter school and the fact that one of his primary opponents was the son of a Democratic US Senator, I felt at the time (as did everybody else, including it turns out his own parents) that he didn't have a prayer. That he came as close as he did, that he came within a few thousand votes of beating Russ Carnahan in the primary, is actually something close to a ringing endorsement of democracy.
There's something important missing from the documentary though, and he alluded to it (so indirectly that I wonder if he even knows it) in the Q&A. One of the questions was from someone who lived in the rural part of his district who asked why all of the documentary footage showed him campaigning hard in the urban part of the district, how he thought he was going to win without campaigning almost at all in the suburbs or the country when those make up half or more of the district? He did admit that door-to-door campaigning turned out to be impractical when the doors are a mile apart. What he didn't talk about, and I wonder if he even knows, is the unspeakably foul reason why all of those right-wing, white racist neighborhoods were added to what was previously a safe Democratic district in the first place -- the extremely dirty, disgusting deal that retired 1st District Congressman Bill Clay made during redistricting in which he helped the Republicans secure the 2nd District as a safe district (it had been a swing district) and helped them add enough right-wingers to the 3rd District to make it a possible swing district in order to make the 1st District seat hereditary, that is to say for their part in helping him pass on his district to his son, the current 1st District Congressman Lacy Clay. Which calls to mind something my late father, a staunch Labor Democrat, said about Bill Clay even before that, which was that despite Clay's long history of standing up for organized labor, "I'd feel a lot better about him if he had even a single relative who wasn't on the government payroll." And that was before the Clay family sold out their own party in order to get Lacy Clay a job he couldn't have earned without his father's help.
Which, by the way, cuts to the absolute heart of one of the main themes of the movie. As somebody in the movie summed it up, I think it was one of the Post-Dispatch's reporters, in our area we have a president who got the job from his dad, a governor who got the job from his dad, a US representative who got the job from his dad and another one who got her job from her widowed husband, and now yet another US representative who got his job from his mom -- is hereditary aristocracy what America is supposed to be about? Anger about encroaching hereditary aristocracy is an awful lot of what motivated director Frank Popper to spend the time and money to follow Smith and his campaign around and shoot 100 or so hours of footage of them. Interestingly enough, though, I wonder if it has less to do with hereditary aristocracy than something simpler but perhaps more sinister: brand name recognition? I ask this because in 2004, the current Illinois governor won his job in no small part because his opponent had the same last name as a previous politician with a truly terrifyingly thorough reputation for political sleaze and corruption; even though the 2004 candidate was an entirely different Ryan, people associated his name with the prior guy's offenses.
But all political theory aside, it's absolutely worth seeing the movie for its own sake. You've seen a gazillion political movies come and go, but none of them have this immediacy or this realism, and few of them this intensity. St. Louis has never been more clearly, accurately, or beautifully filmed than this; if nothing else, if you out of towners want to see what it looks like where I live, track down a showing of Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? And even knowing the ending, watching that final day of the election on film will keep you riveted to the edge of your seat.