State of the Union? Haven’t heard of it have you? (If you have you have to admit you’re in the minority on this). Which is odd—it’s Tracy and Hepburn! How can you miss Tracy and Hepburn? And in a Capra film too! It also stars Angela Lansbury as the woman trying to break our eternal couple up, and control Tracy…Lansbury always plays the villain, be it the communist mother in Manchurian Candidate or the weekly serial killer who always frames others for her crimes in Murder She Wrote (there’s no other way to explain the body count), she always plays the villain…
So since you probably are not familiar with the plot, let me quickly sum up. Estranged husband and wife Grant and Mary Matthews are thrown together when Grant decides to move from a highly successful business career to taking a chance at running for President in 1948. But first he has to get the Republican nomination. At first he speaks from his heart…but when swayed by Lansbury’s Kay Thorndyke, the other woman, and a W.R. Hearst-esque media baron, he begins to play the games of politics he had previously hated. Here we see Capra in full swing detailing the cynicism of voting bloc politics, of playing one minority off against other, of making deals for votes. This nearly destroys him, and his chances for election, until he’s brought back to his senses by his loving wife. Whether he wins or not, the movie doesn’t cover.
It’s a good story, but what makes this film so patriotic is that Matthews at several points makes comments on what does and doesn’t work in America. The character of Matthews is actually given to making some very detailed speeches, (which I sadly could not find clips of on youtube, found a couple edited to seem to benefit liberal positions alone, but not the full speech). It is in these speeches that you see the virtue of America praised, and our flaws acknowledged and combated.
Matthews: Well the next time you’re up there, Mr. Conover, look down. Look down on Pittsburgh, for example, what do you see?
Mathews: That’s right, smoke. From the steel mills. Miles and miles of steel mills. But you see something else, too, don’t you? Farms, factories, lumber, mines, railroads, business, management, labor. Not one able to exist alone, but together, working together with courage and imagination. That makes America. That’s a great picture from the air. Yeah but come down to Earth and walk into one of those meetings like that one in Cleveland, and what do you find? Farmers, cattlemen, lumbermen, business, labor, they were all there. All working together? In a pig’s eye. All scared to death, all fighting each other. Each out for the biggest bite in the apple. Well, there aren’t that many bites in the apple.
Because you politicians instead of helping pull the country together are helping to pull it part, just to get votes. To labor you promise higher wages and lower prices. To business, higher prices and lower wages. To the rich you say, “Let’s cut taxes”. To the poor, “Soak the rich”. To the veterans cheaper housing. To the builders uncontrolled prices. [Italics added]
Notice that here the win-win mentality of rational self-interest and capitalism is stated. That capitalism is dependant on numerous individuals working together, out of their own rational self-interest, but together. Rather than the greed and irrational, short-sighted self-interest of “what’s in it for me politics” of promising this group or that group something. Notice this is in 1948, before the post-war boom, before the boom of the early 60’s before the boom of the 80’s and 90’s…and yet it foresees that our “courage and imagination” are the things that will bring about this great prosperity. It subtly implies the truth, that while socialism simply divides the apple between this group or that, it is capitalism and capitalism alone that creates wealth (not just distributes it) so that there is actually an apple for everyone.
Or when he goes to see the White House while considering his run, a man chides him for bluntly stating the White House needs a new paint job:
Bystander: Do you know who lives in that historic mansion [the White House]?
Matthews: Yeah the spirit of all those who fought for human dignity lives there. Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Paul, St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Plato, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Pasteur, Newton, Galileo, Edison, Franklin, Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette, Garibaldi, Bolivar, Kosciusko. The martyrs, the saints, and the poets. Civilizations past and present. Man’s whole history. His evolution from worm to animal to Einstein, his long search for God, all those things live in that noble dwelling, but I still say it needs painting.
And of course the central point of the movie is when after giving an off camera speech filleting big labor he prepares to give an equally harsh speech against what would be called big business then, but now we use the more correct term cronyism. (Please note that in 1948 almost everything he says is the action we should have taken…from a man this principled however, the speech would be different on a few points, so please keep the times in mind as you read it).
Matthews: Those men [labor bosses] in there are the kind of men who are responsible for the wildcat strikes. If I can make them see something bigger than their own jobs as head of their own locals and what little power they get from that…Why? What did I say to them? I just said that when the members stop running the unions, the unions start running the members.
Matthews: I’m going to tell them they do a lot of yapping about communism but as long as they think about high profits instead of high production, they’re playing the communist game. High production is the way to kill high prices.
Conover: They want high prices.
M: High prices means inflation. Inflation today means depression tomorrow. And a depression in these United State is exactly the ace card Moscow is waiting to draw.
C: They don’t want to hear these things.
M: They’re gonna hear them. They’re going to hear that capitalism itself is being challenged. If it doesn’t survive, it’s because men like themselves haven’t the guts or the imagination to make it survive.
C: You can’t talk to that crowd this way you’ll antagonize them.
All right. So what? So I’ll antagonize them. I yelled my head off about labor, didn’t I, and its responsibilities. Well, I’m going to lay it right on the line about industry too. Now look here Jim, you know just as well as I do that there are men at that banquet who’ll be rooting for a depression, just so they can slap labor’s ears back.
C: And I suppose you have a few well-chosen words to say about tax reduction.
M: You better not worry so much about tax reduction until we accomplish some of the things we have to accomplish. I’m going to tell the wealthiest nation in the world it is a failure unless it’s also the healthiest nation in the world. That means the highest medical care for the lowest income groups. And that goes for housing, too. The one thing this nation is not rich enough to afford is not having a roof over our heads. And I’m going to tell them the American Dream is not making money. It is the well being and the freedom of the individual throughout the world from Patagonia to Detroit. We can’t be an island of plenty in a world of starvation. We have to send, food, clothing, machinery, and money to the bitter, impoverished people of the world. Try to recreate their self-respect. Give them the desire again for individual freedom. And I’m gonna tell them that as long as dictatorships remain in the world, we better remain well armed. Because the next time we’re not going to get two years to get ready. They’re gonna jump us overnight. And I’m gonna tell them that there’s only one government which is capable of handling the atomic control, world disarmament, world employment, world peace, and that’s a world government. The people of thirteen states started the United States of America. Well, I think the people of that many nations are ready to start a United States of the World. With or with out Russia. And I mean a “United” States of the World. With one Bill of Rights. One international law. One international currency. One international citizenship. And I’m gonna tell them that the brotherhood of man is not just an idealistic dream, but a practical necessity if man is going to survive. [Italics added]
Here he correctly realizes that there are two sides to both labor and business. In labor there are actual workers, and there are the corrupt union bosses who fleece their members, pad their pockets, and make ungodly campaign contributions to politicians who allow them to repeat the cycle. A bit prophetic in his critique of labor isn’t he? I would never advocate for ending unions (except for public employees and professional), they serve an important function, but today they have become worse than the caricatured robber barons they were supposedly formed to end.
Meanwhile in business there are real businessmen like Matthews who enjoy making a great product and enjoy making profit off that great product (the heroes of an Ayn Rand novel) and there are those who like cronyism, who as this movie makes clear are very un-capitalistically for high tariffs, anti-free trade, protectionist legislation against competition from new inventions, and low taxes ON THEIR INDUSTRY (GE, GM, Google, Goldman Sachs, and basically all the biggest Obama contributors). And I’ll forgive Matthews’ statement about not lowering taxes before we have paid for what we need to do, at least he’s advocating balanced budgets, and 10 years before Rand, 15 before Goldwater, 20 before Milton Friedman, and before Laffer and Reagan it’s forgivable to not know the truth and facts of supply-side economics (at least implicitly he understands the heart of supply-side economics by putting the focus on high production). And before anyone thinks I’m giving up my conservative roots by praising his call for the healthiest nation and housing for all…go back and read your Hayek and Friedman…you need a safety net, it just should be at the local, not federal level (and in 1948, I can assume a Republican defines “the lowest income groups” as the bottom 5% not the modern Democratic definition of the “the lowest income groups” as the other 99%).
And I have to love the admission that America is not a nation of isolationists, as some would now have you believe. We are the beacon of freedom in the world and that comes with a responsibility to spread freedom. There’s a throwaway joke early on “After all Senator Fosdick was an isolationist. I think he should be isolated.” This was the correct view of isolationism: it doesn’t and can’t work. Not just on pragmatic reasons, but on ethical ones.
And you’ll also notice that the ideal world government presented is one of a union of free nations, that will advocate and push for liberty around the world, not just throwing everyone into one body and being run through with corruption.
This is close to the kind of speech I want to hear now. Praising America’s greatness and condemning those who see it only as a way to make a quick buck for themselves and screw everyone else.
The movie is also quick to condemn the evils of identity politics and condemn those who trade in it (I’m looking at you Democratic Party). It is expressed best by “Spike” McManous, a reporter sent to keep an eye on Matthews, “In Conover’s eyes a lazy people, an ignorant people, a prejudiced people are not free.” And he’s sadly right; people who are lazy, ignorant, and prejudiced are always slave to those who would exploit those flaws. And that is why it is the responsibility of Americans to keep themselves informed and reasonable…but it is also the responsibility of politicians to not to play to such disgusting habits.
And at the end of the film, when, after making a dozen crooked deals, Matthews realizes his sins, he takes to the air and gives an impromptu speech baring his soul and again showing what is great about this nation.
I had the right idea when I started to talk to you people of America. The idea that you voters, you farmers, you businessmen, you working men, you ordinary citizens of whatever party, are not the selfish scum that venal politicians make you out to be. I thought I could speak my peace straight out and forward. I thought I could tell you that this country of ours is young, it’s not old. That we’ve just begun to grow. That all we need is courage, and from out of that courage will come a greatness greater than we ever dreamed. I wanted to tell you that we Americans are the hope of the world, and the secret of our great plenty is freedom, and we’ve got to share that secret and that plenty with the other nations of the world. And I wanted to tell you that we face a great problem, because when people are cold and hungry and scared, they gather together in panicky herds, ready to be led by communists and fascists who promise them bread for freedom, and deliver neither. [Italics added]
A sobering reminder we still need to this day.
As he says, we are a young nation.
Today we are 236 years old. 236 years old…just for comparison at 236 years the Roman Republic had managed to come up with a crappy constitution, get the city burned to the ground by Gaul’s and conquer most of Italy (which sounds impressive until you realize that France was once able to conquer most of Italy, and if France can do it, well…) and at 236 England had done…well…um….nothing. Same story for France. Certainly none of them were the center of the world at 236. Oh and before you ask none of these countries had art at 236 let alone jazz, rock’n’roll, Frank Lloyd Wright, almost all film, Faulkner, Twain, Hawthorne, Frost, Gibran, Whitman. Not bad for only 236 years. None of these others were economic powerhouses, or beacons of any ideal. And that’s at 236 for nations that would leave an undisputed mark on history. We’ve already begun to make our mark and it is one of spreading liberty, freedom, capitalism, and all that speaks to the best in human nature.
This movie, possibly more than any other, reminds me of what a great nation this can be, and what we are capable of. It reminds me of our greatness that was, is, and will be if we just embrace the best within us and do away with the rest.