I recently spent time in Washington for a follow-up visit with one of the Senators who appears in my film WHY WE FIGHT. Security at the Russell Office Building being lighter than I expected, I found myself searching the halls for the Senator’s office with time to spare.
Making my way through those corridors of power is always humbling. I wonder if I am awed more by the power accumulated within the building or by the task facing anyone hoping to reform it. I am admittedly a hopeful reformer. Each time I come to Washington, I am Mr. Smith, holding out for a happy ending to the American story. Maybe that’s why in naming my new film, I borrowed the title of Frank Capra’s World War II Series Why We Fight.
In Capra’s films, America is a place of democratic promise, a system driven by the aspirations of everyday people. Capra’s villains are the rich and powerful wielding undue influence over public policy. It’s George Bailey and the people of Bedford Falls against the threat of Pottersville. It’s Jefferson Smith fighting the rich and powerful to stop a dam from being built by his beloved Willett Creek. In his Why We Fight films, Capra made global his hopes for democracy. In my film, I try to do the same. But if I tell you any more, I’ll spoil my movie for you.
All this was on my mind when I entered the Senator’s office twenty minutes before my scheduled appointment. His receptionist was busy fielding a flurry of incoming calls. "Senator X’s office, please hold." "The office of Senator X, please hold." "Senator X’s office, please hold." On a TV flickering silently in the waiting room, I discovered that I had arrived on Capitol Hill the day Minority Leader Reid forced a closed session to discuss the administration’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq. The Senate was in an uproar — partisan posturing on all sides. Outside the Beltway, I wondered if Americans cared at all.
The incoming calls seemed to suggest they did. From the receptionist’s responses, the callers seemed concerned with the gamut of subjects facing the Senator. "The Senator is unavailable at the moment," she would say. "May I pass on a message?" Yes he is familiar with that issue. You say you support it? Yes, I will pass that on to the Senator. Thank you for calling." Some version of this conversation (some expressing approval, others dissent) was repeated ten times in the first 15 minutes I spent in the Senator’s waiting area.
During a lull, I asked the receptionist how many such constituent calls she fields each day. "Oh hundreds," she smiled, adding that what comes to her is just the overflow from the Senator’s voicemail. "Is there any system for passing all this on to the Senator?" I asked. "Oh yes," she replied, brandishing a steno pad with an orderly handwritten tally of the views expressed. "I share it all with him at the end of the day." Impressed and inspired, I returned to the visitor’s couch. For a moment, Washington seemed to be working for America.
As I waited, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation taking place on the opposite side of the waiting room. Here was a group of businessmen at a conference table with two of the Senator’s staffers. I hid myself in a sailing magazine and pretended not to listen. From what I could gather, the businessmen represented a defense interest seeking the Senator’s support for a new missile system produced by their firm.
For anyone who has seen my film Why We Fight, which examines the contemporary reality of Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, the situation might seem ironic. Here, I had been in Washington for barely an hour and was already witnessing in microcosm the tension of forces acting upon American policymaking. On my right, the voices of what Eisenhower called "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry" seeking their Senator’s ear through his receptionist’s headset. On my left, representatives of the military-industrial sector, seeking audience with the same Senator on a matter of significant economic consequence.
A balanced picture? How could it be, really? With the enormous costs of elections and the need for members of Congress to bring home jobs, the most important people for any politician are not you and me, but those whose companies write big checks and generate employment. Neither party is exempt from this. Democrats and Republicans alike face obscene electoral costs and constituents who want results. And this is where industry gains the troubling foothold that Eisenhower warned against. The problem is systemic. So how can we fix it?
Sitting in that waiting room, with the hopes of democracy on my right and the reality of capitalism on my left, I wondered: "what if I could build a wall right here, to separate these two?" Why were the founding fathers so aware of the need to build Jefferson’s ‘"wall of separation’ between church and state and to keep discrete from each other the branches of government, and yet they failed to predict the potential for industrial capitalism to compromise the very framework they so meticulously built?"
With a few moments to spare before my scheduled appointment, I asked the receptionist for a slip of paper. She ripped me a page from her steno pad and handed me a pen. I scribbled something down. I know it will strike many as idealistic, naïve, Capraesque maybe. Guilty as charged. Nonetheless, I propose herewith a 28th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
"Congress shall have the power and responsibility to enforce, by appropriate legislation, measures to ensure that no person or group of persons may secure favorable treatment from any person seeking federal office by means of material or economic inducement."
It’s just a draft, written by a layman, a small step toward solving a big problem. If you have anything to add or take away, please email me at email@example.com.
Eugene Jarecki, director of the award-winning film "Why We Fight"
This article was originally published in www.vtcommons.org