My favourite movie of all time is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I watch it on every birthday. It’s sappy. It’s simplistic. But it remains my favourite movie – ever! And the Lincoln Memorial is my favourite spot in that moving city. I spend my longest and most meaningful moments there. Above my desk is a large picture of that same memorial and on my desk is a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln.
Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic nature, that his character manifests in the movie, is somehow suited for those moments when democracy itself reaches its darker moments. As the newest senator, just arriving in Washington, Stewart’s Jefferson Smith leaves his political handlers at the train station and secretly takes a bus tour of the national monuments. We are treated to two minutes of panoramic views of the great memorials, the Capitol, the thousands of graves at Arlington Cemetery, and, of course, the White House.
And then we catch him climbing the august steps at the Lincoln Memorial, hat off, awe on his face as he looks up into the eyes of Lincoln himself. He begins reading the words, etched in the marble, of writings from some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. Hearing a boy’s voice, he turns to see the lad, accompanied by an older man, reading the grand phrases above him. An older black man, hat over his heart, looks on. It is that moment of great inspiration that will test Jefferson Smith like never before.
An hour later in the movie, he vows to leave politics, crushed by the paltriness and greed of politics. The country he has loved with a simple faith has become far more complex than he imagined. He has viewed its darker side through the lens of politics, and his faith is close to being lost.
He ends up where he began, at the Lincoln Memorial. He weeps, beaten by the system. He looks into Lincoln’s face and turns away, lost. He leans against one of the great columns and breaks down completely, sliding to the floor, undone.
Clarissa Saunders, his senatorial assistant, watches from the darkness. She is actually moving the other way – from jaded understanding to the renewal of democratic ideals – because of this one broken man. She, too, weeps, and moves towards him. She reminds him of those great ideals he felt he was losing, which she was now recapturing:
“All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now. You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world, a lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there, waiting for someone to come along. You were right. He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it, that’s what he was waiting for. I think he was waiting for you, Jeff. He knows you can do it, so do I. You just make up your mind you’re not gonna quit, and I’ll tell you what. I’ve been thinking about it all the way back here. I think you can do it.”
What happens in the following minutes is one of the great scenes of Hollywood. Jefferson Smith takes those words from the walls of the memorial and plants them into his heart and spine.
I think that’s what we need right now – more walls. We need walls of wonderful words and images, dedicated to the nurses, doctors, porters, orderlies, first responders, and the millions of volunteers helping during COVID; to the parents and teachers; to those attempting to keep their businesses going for the sake of community; to those politicians who actually put justice back in politics by fighting for the marginalized and the victims of race, and against the forces of hatred.
Perhaps more than anything, we need walls dedicated to the vast number of those who perished due to the virus. They were virtually ignored in America, and the time has come to make things right, to remember and honour them, and to collectively grieve over their loss.
There should be walls of dedication built in communities across every land, not only honouring the dead but those who cared for them in their final moments. There should be new walls of great eloquence dedicated to our residing ideals – the dreams that caused our ancestors to fight for a better life, even at the cost of their own lives.
Can we do it? Can we all just step back and seek a better world without destroying those we disagree with in the process. Can we, like Abraham Lincoln, reach out across our differences with, “Malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds?”
Yes, we can. Yes, we must. The time has come to build new walls of inspiring thought and just compassion. Those other walls of division must go; the new walls of inspiration must be built.