Sunday, November 4, 2007

Mr. Smith For President

In the year 2000, then-governor Mel Carnahan posthumously defeated John Ashcroft in his bid for reelection to the United States Senate. It was the first time that a deceased person had ever claimed victory in a Senatorial race. A month later, Ashcroft was nominated as U.S. Attorney General by president-elect George W. Bush and Missouri Governor Roger Wilson appointed Jean Carnahan, Mel Carnahan’s widow, to serve in her husband’s place.

Four years later, Congressman Dick Gephardt retired from the U.S. House of Representatives after two unsuccessful runs at a Democratic presidential nomination. A leading contender for the seat arose in the person of Russ Carnahan, a member of the Missouri State Legislature and the son of Mel and Jean.

“The Carnahan name in Missouri is like the Kennedy name in Massachusetts,” political analyst Kenneth F. Warren said.

Despite his family’s reputation, Russ Carnahan was considered a weak candidate due to his flat-footed delivery during speeches and debates and the fact that he had missed fifty-six votes on the Missouri House floor in 2004, ranking 132nd out of 150 state representatives in vote attendance. Nonetheless, there was an overwhelming public consensus that he would win.

Nine other candidates entered the Democratic primary, including Jeff Smith, a twenty-nine year-old adjunct political science professor at Washington University and founder of the Confluence Academies, a group of charter schools in North St. Louis focused on science and math.

“He’s short, looks like he’s twelve and sounds like he’s castrated,” Jeff’s campaign communications director, Artie Harris, said.

“You’re not running for anything,” Jeff’s mother told him. “You’re just running away from a stable job.”

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? tells the story of an impossibly determined individual, attempting to disprove fundamental assumptions about the system of electoral politics in the United States. Jeff is about five-five but dribbles a basketball like a Globetrotter. He believes in universal healthcare and that the recovery of urban areas begins with schools.

“No child’s future should be determined by something as arbitrary as the neighborhood in which he or she was born,” he said in a speech before an African-American congregation.

Although Jeff promises to revitalize the core values of the progressive movement, his politics seem secondary to the demonstration of pure idealism and personal will. This labor of love has Jeff juggling cell phones, knocking on hundreds of doors, delivering heart-wrenching pep talks to his campaign staff and changing his pants in the middle of a parking lot.

Frank Popper’s film, made on a budget smaller than that of Jeff’s bare bones campaign, is a compelling study for anyone interested in the day-in, day-out struggle of a hopeless grass roots movement that threatens to actually succeed. It’s also funny.

Upon meeting Jeff Smith for the first time and observing all of his disqualifying faults, Artie Harris talked to Jeff for ten minutes and arrived at a conclusion.

“This motherfucker just might do it.”

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