U.S. democracy in age of dynasties

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, the savvy documentary "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" appears to be about the underdog grass-roots campaign of an eager young adjunct professor from Washington University as he seeks to fill the shoes of Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt in the House of Representatives.

Written and produced by Matt Coen, Mike Kime and Frank Popper (the last of whom also directed), the film riffs on the title of the 1939 Frank Capra-James Stewart classic as it follows 29-year-old Jeff Smith on his uphill battle against an opponent with far greater name recognition. However, the film delivers a disturbing reminder about the allure of the status quo.

Gephardt's departure after 28 years left an enticing opening for his seat representing the Greater St. Louis area. Ten candidates tossed their hats into the Democratic primary contest in August 2004. The best known was Russ Carnahan, son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan -- who died in a 2000 plane crash before being posthumously elected to the U.S. Senate -- and grandson of former Missouri Rep. A.S.J. Carnahan. Russ' mother, Jean, was appointed to take her husband's place until a special election was held in 2002 and still holds plenty of political sway in the Show-Me State. Other candidates included state legislators and the fortuitously named Smith.

Jefferson Smith was the name of James Stewart's filibustering character in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But Smith's name pales in Missouri political capital beside that of Carnahan. Despite an undistinguished four years in the Missouri Legislature and a lackluster speaking style, Carnahan quickly emerged as the front-runner on the strength of his family name. In many ways, the film's presentation of Carnahan's privileged position secures it a timeliness and scope that reach beyond its ostensible subject.

By early 2009, someone named Bush or Clinton will have served as U.S. president for the previous 20 years. With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton positioned as a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looming as a dark horse Republicancontender, the dynastic trending of American politics could not have a higher profile.

While Carnahan looks every bit the part of political scion, Smith is short and speaks with a nasal intonation. He seems to be in perpetual motion, always in a uniform of a pale blue oxford shirt, red tie and khakis. Even his own communications director -- Artie Harris, a true character -- says he looks like a 12-year-old.

When speaking, Smith is passionate and knowledgeable, campaigning on a platform of education and universal healthcare. He's stridently anti-Bush and his campaign relies on going door to door, meet-and-greet coffee klatches, youthful volunteers, plentiful yard signs and direct mailings. Smith's highest-level advisors all seem to be in their mid-20s.

The film is an inspiring look at the power of youthful energy and politics that are position-driven, but as Smith cuts into Carnahan's early 30-point lead we are reminded of the advantages of money and privilege.

Like "Street Fight," Marshall Curry's account of the 2002 Newark, N.J., mayoral race, "Mr. Smith" captures ground-level political machinations in an utterly fascinating way. The question raised by the title makes for an interesting, if possibly disheartening, debate.


"Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St. (213) 617-0268.

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