The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

March 9, 2013

Paul's "Mr. Smith" moment was an encouraging aberration

By Nick HIldebrand
Herald News Editor/Weekends

---- — At deadline Wednesday, Rand Paul was still talking. The Kentucky Republican’s kind-of epic filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for the top spot at the CIA was a great story.

Filibusters -- real, honest-to-God, talk until your voice is raw and your knees are weak, long past the point of making much sense or at least saying anything that hasn’t been said already filibusters -- aren’t something that happens every day.

The last one to rival Paul’s gabfest was in 2010, when Vermont’s socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders railed against the Bush tax cuts for nine hours.  

Paul wrapped up his filibuster after 13 hours early Thursday morning with a quip that suggested he needed to go to the bathroom -- and answered one of many questions about filibuster rules that came up in the newsroom.

It was far short of the filibuster record set by Strom Thurmond in 1957 when the longtime senator from South Carolina went on for more than 24 hours in a bid to stop civil rights legislation which later passed. According to a number of sources, that filibuster consisted of a mind-numbing recitation of voting laws, a reading of the Declaration of Independence and other time killers. (For the record, Thurmond had an aide on hand nearby with a bucket in case he needed to answer nature’s call.)

I’d be ashamed to admit that my conception of what a filibuster is really like is derived from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” -- the 1939 classic in which Jimmy Stewart revives Jean Arthur’s faith in America by loosening his necktie, mussing up his hair and stammering endlessly about good government until the forces of graft and corruption collapse under the weight of their own guilt and Claude Rains tries to kill himself -- except that’s all most people know about one.

That cultural touchstone probably has a lot to do with why so many folks were fascinated by Paul’s filibuster and why even those who find Paul’s politics unpalatable were encouraged by his actions.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the point of the filibuster wasn’t really stopping Brennan from taking the job, which partisans might see as another example of Republican obstructionism a la Chuck Hagel, but highlighting the Obama administration’s Constitution-stretching position on drone attacks.

Lefties and libertarians for the most part agree that an American citizen, even if he’s thinking about setting off a dirty bomb, shouldn’t have his lunch at a restaurant in Tucson interrupted -- and his life snuffed out -- by a Hellfire missile launched by remote control.

Paul knows, of course, that that’s the position of the White House, too, but since Attorney General Eric Holder hedged his answer when presented with that kind of a case (what if he’s got his hand on the detonator?) Paul had something he could take and run with, and for the most part, to his credit, he stayed on message.

It was only when he was relieved for a few moments later in the night by some other Republican senators that the filibuster took on the hard-edged partisan tones that shut down our ability to listen to our fellow citizens.

Texan Ted Cruz quoted Twitter, the movie “Patton,” Reagan, Goldwater and Shakespeare. He cited “Henry V” and its famous St. Crispin’s Day speech but his talking points reminded me more of the line from “Macbeth:” “(A) poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That kind of detour aside, Paul’s filibuster was a tonic for those who are sick and tired of what passes for governing in Washington. Cynics will see it as grandstanding over an impossibility, but optimists, if there are any of them left after four long years of partisan trench warfare, may see the droning on over drone strikes as an encouraging sign.

Faced with a choice of threatening to act and then daring the other side to come up with the votes to stop that threat -- a parliamentary trick that has been used hundreds of times in the Senate in recent years -- Paul chose to actually do something.

It was a big, dramatic gesture, and maybe that’s what’s needed to shake up the entrenched power structure in Washington that’s been content for too long to conduct business as usual.

In “Mr. Smith,” the idealistic junior senator talks about how easy it is for people to forget the big ideas and great hopes that underlie our democracy: “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.”

It’s too much to declare Rand Paul’s filibuster a “Mr. Smith” moment for the modern age, but the senator deserves some credit for “walking the walk” in a venue where few even bother to “talk the talk” anymore.

Nick Hildebrand is The Herald's News Editor/Weekends. Contact him at nhildebrand@sharonherald.com