The campaign documentary is an inherently flattering genre. If a political candidate decides to allow his or her private moments to be filmed, they have to be pretty confident that they will be portrayed in positively. Maybe they trust that the documentarians are not interested in causing them trouble, or perhaps they just think having a camera crew around will force them to be on their best behavior. Either way, it’s rare to find a campaign documentary that shows the real person behind a politician’s public persona. Usually, as we saw with Mitt last month, it only shows the side they want us to see.
But a good campaign doc is about more than its candidate; it should also capture a moment that reflects the political realities of its time. By narrowing its focus to the personal, Mitt failed to do that, but for a proper antidote, you may want to check out Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington?. Jeff Smith was a 30-year-old adjunct professor of political science when he decided to run for a seat vacated in 2004 by Rep. Dick Gephardt, the son of a milkman who served 40 years in Congress, was elected House Majority Leader, and even ran for president twice. The question of the film, which follows the ups and downs of his primary campaign, is if a young, working-class nobody can still win in an electoral game increasingly rigged by money, dirty tricks, and nepotism.
Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? captures a very specific idea and time: the enthusiasm and idealism of progressives during the Bush years, when they found their voice in opposition to his unpopular policies. The turning point in Smith’s quixotic campaign is when progressive governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean comes to town to endorse his candidacy. Furthermore, it’s easy to see in Smith’s young, inexperienced campaign staff glimpses of the naïve enthusiasm that would propel another relative newcomer to a higher office four years later.
In fact, the similarities to Obama’s 2008 campaign go even further. While Obama would initially struggle to break through against the name recognition of Hillary Clinton, Smith was up against Russ Carnahan, son of a U.S. Senator and Governor. Carnahan comes across as a stiff, unpolished candidate – the filmmakers string together a montage of him recycling the same platitudes at multiple campaign events – who nonetheless begins the campaign with a strong lead based solely on his name (a political analyst at one point claims that “the Carnahan name is like the Kennedy name in Massachusetts”). Both Obama and Smith capitalized on public sentiment that was turning against the very idea of political dynasties.
Still, Smith’s challenges were formidable. His own communications director eloquently points out his shortcomings: “He’s short, looks like he’s 12, and sounds like he’s castrated.” He has no money and a dilapidated campaign office. And in his case, an easy-to-remember name is a detriment: there are two candidates named Smith on the ballot, and Jeff has to constantly remind people that they should vote for the first one listed.
Despite these obstacles, Smith’s campaign picks up momentum, based mostly on the candidate’s tireless efforts and his ability to motivate his young volunteers. But Smith is also politically shrewd: he ties his campaign to anti-Bush sentiment, handing out lawn signs that seem to impugn Bush and his attorney general John Ashcroft and obscure Smith’s non-existent record of accomplishments.
For a while, it seems like his strategy could actually work, and its idealism is contagious. Ultimately, Smith is the anti-Mitt; his passion for politics is all-consuming, and ultimately, it would consume him, too. Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is the unique story that breaks your heart twice. The first time comes when Smith loses to Carnahan by just a single percentage point on primary night. It’s a quietly devastating moment in the film, but the real heartbreak comes when you go to Wikipedia and read what happened after.
Smith ran for the State Senate a year later. Again, it was a crowded field, but this time it was Smith with the name recognition, and he managed to eke out a victory. His career in the state legislature was thrumming along nicely until a federal investigation into attack ads on Russ Carnahan produced during his Congressional run. The crime was small – his campaign had failed to note on the campaign literature who had paid for the ads – but the cover-up is what buried him. Smith’s former colleague wore a wire for the FBI and recorded Smith admitting that he lied on the affidavit. Despite the dozens of letters the federal judge received urging from Smith’s colleagues, he was sentenced to a year in prison.
But somehow that’s not the worst part. In the conversation recorded by his colleague, Smith was caught to figure out a way to pin the crimes on his former communications director, Artie Harris, a key figure in the documentary who committed suicide in 2007 just two months after being interviewed as part of the investigation. “Artie would totally want us to throw him under the bus here,” Smith said on the recording.
If Smith had any hopes of getting to Washington, they were dashed by that recording. Further, the outcome was predicted by many who were older and more cynical than him. Early in the film (before he has has begun his campaign), his mother admits in an interview, “I’m just so conflicted…knowing what goes on in politics and all of the awful things it takes to get there.” His grandmother concurred, “I don’t think a person with the mind that he has should waste it on politics.” They were surely correct.
And yet, watching the film today, it is nearly impossible not to get caught up in the spirit of Smith’s campaign. I even found myself making excuses for those illicit actions that the film doesn’t show. Of course he had to cut corners. He was battling a broken system! Of course, my justifications are of little use to Smith and his legions of supporters who were surely disillusioned by his fall from grace. One of his staffers sums up the situation nicely in his final interview for the documentary. Explaining why he will stay involved in politics: “I don’t think because he couldn’t win in that situation that there’s no hope. Not yet. I’m still young. I’m going to wait before I become a little more cynical about it.” My guess is that it didn’t take him long, but Can Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? is a lovely refresher of what idealism in politics looks like, and how easy it is for a campaign documentary to make its subject look good, in spite of the facts.