They’re Not Making Jeff Smiths Like They Used To

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For generations of Americans, “Jefferson Smith” was the archetype of the honest, hard-working man of the people who gets into politics to serve the public interest and stands up to powerful interests. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential movie about a corrupt system that can be toppled by a single man of integrity. So maybe it’s no surprise that there seem to be a lot of Jeff Smiths getting into politics. What better name to inspire confidence?

Unfortunately, Sen. Jeff Smith of some unnamed Western state would be mighty embarrassed by some of the Jeff Smiths who have come along in his wake.

Today in Washington, D.C., former city council candidate Jeff Smith was sentenced to 60 days in jail for accepting illegal campaign funds and making false reports to the city’s campaign finance office. Like D.C. mayor Vincent Gray, Smith was essentially accused of benefiting from an illegal shadow campaign run by a major donor who makes his money from city contracts.

Today’s Jeff Smith story reminded me of one from a few years ago. As Jason Zengerle reported in the New Republic, Missouri state senator Jeff Smith “was the brightest young star in the Missouri Democratic Party. Thanks to an award-winning documentary about him, he was also a national political figure—a crusading reformer whose combination of charisma, idealism, and intelligence prompted comparisons to Howard Dean, Paul Wellstone, and even Barack Obama. Although he was only in his first term, no one (least of all of Smith himself) doubted he was destined for greatness.”

Jefferson Smith was the leader of the Boy Rangers. Jeff Smith of Missouri taught political science at Washington University and had equally devoted young supporters. Indeed, that Jeff Smith was so Capra-esque – at least to liberal eyes – that filmmaker Frank Popper made a film about him. Zengerle writes that the film, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, is a minor masterpiece of the political documentary genre. After its release in 2006, it broadcast nationally on PBS’s prestigious ‘Independent Lens’ series and earned Popper, a first-time feature director, numerous festival accolades.”

But then it all went wrong. Right from the beginning, actually. In his first campaign, afraid of losing, Smith turned to some sketchy operatives who put together – whattaya know? – an illegal shadow campaign to attack his opponent. Eventually the FEC came calling, and then the FBI. Things spiraled out of control. One of the operatives ratted him out. His campaign manager committed suicide. Smith was sentenced to a year in jail.

I remember hearing back in Kentucky about a woman who refused to vote for a friend for public office because “if a man’s not ruint when he gets in there, he’s ruint when he comes out. And there’s no sense in ruining a good time.” Frank Capra’s fictional Jeff Smith could resist the temptations of power, but it seems that a lot of regular folks named Jeff Smith – or anything else – can’t.