Andersen: Mr. Andersen goes to Washington
September 22, 2014
I love Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." His homespun idealism, youthful exuberance, unerring sense of justice and enduring good looks all remind me of me.
Socially significant director Frank Capra hit a resonant chord when he set up the "Boy Ranger" to take the congressional seat of a corrupt representative who dies unexpectedly — right in the middle of political intrigue full of graft and corruption.
Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is a country rube who arrives starry-eyed in D.C. and immediately pays homage to the memorials celebrating vaunted Americans whose founding ideals are literally etched in stone.
When push comes to shove, Smith's idealism is sorely tested, but he perseveres — with a warm and fuzzy ending that's pure Hollywood.
Mr. Andersen went to Washington, D.C., last week. I made an address on Capitol Hill about my Huts for Vets wilderness veterans program. My "address" was only 20 minutes, and it wasn't before a joint session of Congress, but I was as starry-eyed and idealistic as Capra's well-meaning naif.
Like Smith, I had to see the founding ideas writ in granite, to literally touch those words. So I left early from the reception of my host, the Wilderness Society, and walked through the National Mall, a memorial landscape copiously decorated with Yule Creek marble.
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Dusk was settling on a perfect September evening as I gazed up at the Washington Monument, sat in quiet contemplation at the World War II Memorial and paced slowly by the reflective wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
As darkness fell, floodlights came up on Lincoln, sitting in a throne-like chair inside a colonnaded Greek temple. Lincoln, one hand with fingers open, the other in the semblance of a fist, stared down resolutely, as if asking forbearance for the pained decisions he made 150 years ago.
In dim light I walked through the ghostly Korean War Memorial, explored the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, stood beneath the Jefferson dome and lingered by the glowing Capitol.
I was particularly moved by the high ideals of FDR, some of which are reflected in the current Ken Burns documentary, which is attracting millions of viewers. Unlike Jefferson Smith, however, I could not help but feel somewhat jaded as I read them.
"Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men." This FDR quote from 1935 could be addressing climate change and species extinctions today.
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." Though FDR spoke these words in 1937 with his patrician Harvard accent, their meaning bears on today's gross income inequality.
"Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races," he urged. "No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources."
FDR's comments from more than 80 years ago could have been remarking on recent racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri. "In these days of difficulty," he said in 1932, "we Americans must and shall choose the path of social justice."
"I hate war!" FDR proclaimed in 1936, words I read on the morning it was reported that Obama had threatened to put new boots on the ground in Iraq.
On Tuesday night, at the ornate Warner Theater, Ken Burns and Beau Willimon, scriptwriter for the TV series "House of Cards," said that governance in Washington, whether real or fictional, is often devious and Machiavellian (their words). Both Theodore Roosevelt and FDR could be as conniving as Francis Underwood, they agreed.
Big ideas, they went on, are more powerful and lasting than rigid ideologies. Big ideas are etched on stone monuments to inspire. Ideologies build stone walls to shut out ideas. Both are features of Washington, where stone walls shelter political and economic power and words on stone monuments try to break those walls down.
Unlike Jefferson Smith, I didn't filibuster Congress in a froth of righteousness. The etched stones on those monuments are filibuster enough, constantly echoing fine thoughts and big ideas from the bedrock of American history.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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