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U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #112
February 17, 2010

KOTC Road Trip: (We Are) We the People

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington + DC Civics Trip

Jefferson Smith, the freshman senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was supposed to be a political stooge. Hand-picked to finish out the brief term of a dead senator, Jimmy Stewart's character is thrown into a lion's den with only his integrity for protection. He begins as the laughing stock of Washington when he writes a bill to start a camp for the boy guides from his home state. Turns out, the property he has targeted has secretly been bought up by several scheming senators who are trying pass a rival bill involving the same land. Stewart's aw-shucks belief in the power of the system melts away the cynicism of his seasoned secretary (the wonderful Jean Arthur), who coaches him to stand up to the corruption. In one of cinema's most famous scenes, Senator Smith holds forth on the Senate floor until an established statesman cops to being crooked. With political scandal making everyday news, the film's message that each citizen can make a difference is the type of power play we like our kids to remember.

Our kids don't always understand the theory of "checks and balances", but the visiting the seat of democracy provided ample opportunities to learn about each branch of government.  We took a tour of the famous halls in the Capitol building, admiring 400 years of American history painted around the inside of the Capitol dome.  The kids knew that each state in the Union is represented by its elected officials, but had fun learning that each is also represented by two statutes of native luminaries.  We witnessed democracy in action in the viewing gallery of the Senate while picking out the historic desks: one where our greatest orator, Daniel Webster, sat and, more importantly, the candy desk where present Senators pick up a little energy.  After visiting the Capitol, we went on a tour of the White House and wondered if Sasha and Malia play hide and seek in the East Room where Theodore Roosevelt's children rode a pony.  At the Supreme Court, we chuckled when our docent sounded like a dying pig when he yelled "oyez, oyez, oyez," as if a court session was beginning.  As the kids marveled at how the decisions in that small room with nine people could counter the riot of voices we experienced across the street at the Capitol, we realized the kids just might have gleaned an understanding of the vibrancy of our democracy -- and their role in it.

Film Title: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Directed By: Frank Capra
1938, Rated U, 129 minutes

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

  • Why It's Worth It: Our kids were glued to the screen for Mr. Smith, proving that some classic films stand the test of time just by being great. We found ourselves engaged in rewarding conversations about politics, politicians and the legislative process. The film actually provides an excellent lesson in how legislative bills make their way through Congress. Jimmy Stewart thinks that his idea for a boys' camp can be drafted and passed in a few hours, but Jean Arthur sets him straight with a hilarious explanation of the whole complex process.
  • Virtual Tour of DC: When Mr. Smith first reaches D.C., he slips away from his handlers to see all the monuments. The seasoned pols laugh at his little boy wonder for the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, but this tour of the sites is one of the film's highlights.
  • Some Stars Still Shine: Jimmy Stewart's performance really touched the kids. It is his character's dogged determinism that attracted them. His romance with the tough-talking Jean Arthur feels fresh and funny and they'll never forget the ultimate film finale - Mr. Smith's 24 hour filibuster on the Senate floor.
  • Further Viewing: Director Frank Capra made some of the best loved, best written, feel-good films of all time. His signature is an affinity for the common man, a brilliant comedic touch and non-partisan, sentimental sense of patriotism -- factors that gave post-Depression Americans a much needed chuckle. Check out Capra's other films: It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life, Lost Horizons, Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, State of the Union and You Can't Take it With You.
  • COOL FACT: This was the fifth film that Jimmy Stewart made in 1939.

Our Tips for Talking with your Kids about this Film:

  • Cinema Savvy: This film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, but only took home an Oscar for best writing. It is on the AFI's list of Top 100 Films and thereby well worth an evening on the couch. Jimmy Stewart did receive the Oscar the following year, for his performance in The Philadelphia Story. Many felt it was because of his role as Jefferson Smith.
  • Feminism Savvy: Jean Arthur is the smartest, savviest character in the film. She would have made a wonderful senator, yet she played a secretary.  Talk to the kids about how women's roles have changed over the years.
  • History Savvy: This film was made on the eve of World War II.  Many protested Mr. Smith because the film portrayed our government as corrupt. Capra described the reaction to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as "the worst shellacking of my professional life."  Beltway insiders criticized his cynical view of Washington and the press resented the portrayal of boozing lifestyle.  Yet, Capra received numerous letters from people telling him that the movie inspired them to enter politics.  When Nazi Germany forbid American movies, Mr. Smith showed around-the-clock to a packed theatre in a Paris for the final 30 days before the ban took effect.  This story of an idealistic Boy Ranger troop leader gave encouragement to the ordinary man all around the world. Ironically, today the film feels shamelessly patriotic.


Civics Lessons in Washington, DC

Time Allotment: at least four days

Age Recommendation: fifth grade and up

The Capitol - The Legislative Branch
  • When the House of Representatives met in Statutory Hall, John Quincy Adams realized that if he stood in the right spot, he could hear what his opponents across the room were plotting due to the perfect sphere of the ceiling.  We tried it for ourselves and even with the room full of tourists, we could discern what people were whispering across the room.
  • The Frieze of America is a series of scenes from the first 400 years of North American history lining the inside of the dome.  Search for the face painted in a tree trunk, which some surmise is a self-portrait of the artist.
  • George Washington lobbied for a building made from stone to symbolize the strength of our democracy. The Visitor Center is rumored to be a glorified bunker for Members of Congress, but in actuality it was built underground so it wouldn't disrupt the view of the Capitol. 
  • Gallery passes for the House of Representatives and the Senate can be obtained from your Congressional representatives.
  • Remember Jefferson's heart-rending filibuster in the closing scenes of Mr. Smith?  Their odd shape is intentional so that they can fit into a semi-circle.  Each desk is specifically designed for its location in the room. The desks have history literally etched into them as it became traditional for Senators to sign or carve their name into his or her drawer.  Three desks are assigned:  the senior Senator from New Hampshire sits at Daniel Webster's desk, a Senator from Mississippi occupies Jefferson Davis' (it also has a patch on the side from a Union soldier's bayonet attack after the soldier learned which desk was Davis'), and the senior Senator from Kentucky sits at Henry Clay's desk. Watch for a current tradition in action:  the desk on the Republican side, back row, on the aisle adjacent to the most heavily used entrance is the "candy" desk and any Senator can stop for a treat.  Senator George Murphy from California started this tradition in the 1960s. Those saltshaker bottles on top of each desk?  They once contained sand to blot ink.
The White House - The Executive Branch
  • One popular rumor is that the White House was named after the British burned it down in 1814 and the black timbers were painted white, but the truth is that the Executive Mansion has always been white. It takes 570 gallons of white paint to cover the outside surface.
  • The tour is self-guided, allowing us to gawk as along as we wanted. Secret Service agents are located in each room to answer questions
  • We noted the portrait of George Washington that Dolly Madison saved from the British, now the item that has resided in the White House the longest.
  • The park in front of the White House always hosts a demonstration or two, along with grass and benches for picnicking. This is the park that Theodore Roosevelt's children used as their own personal playground.
The Supreme Court  -- The Judicial Branch
  • Supreme Court doesn't offer tours per se, but docents give lectures about the court in the courtroom on the hour and half hour from 9:30 to 3:30 when the Supreme Court is not in session.  When the Supreme Court is hearing a case, lines to hear oral arguments form outside, one for people who want to hear the entire argument, and another for people who will be in the court room for only three minutes.
  • The red benches on the left are for the press and the on the right for guests of the Justices.
  • The court is steeped in tradition: white feather pens are reminiscent of another era, but remain on the attorney's desks even though they're no longer used; the Justices each sit in chairs specially designed for them.  When a Justice retires, the remaining Justices chip in to buy the chair as a going away gift.  Every session is opened with "oyez, oyez, oyez" ringing out.  The term is an Anglo-Norman word meaning "hear ye."  It was used to call for silence in medieval times.

Our Tips for Planning Ahead:
  • Planning Should be Done Months in Advance: As can be imagined, these tours are highly popular so it's key to contact your member of Congress as soon as you know the dates you'll be in DC, this is your best access to obtaining tickets to tour the Capitol and the only way to tour the White House. Tickets are available months in advance and frequently sell out, so this should be the first step in planning a trip to DC.
  • Visiting the Capitol: Click here for information on the many tours available - some through your representative, and some  through a direct online reservation system.
  • Visiting the Supreme Court: Click here for instructions on visiting hours (9:00 - 4:30 M-F, closed weekends and federal holidays), and a telephone line for schedule updates.
  • White House Tours: Tours of the White House occur only in the mornings from Tuesday through Saturday, and must be scheduled in advance. Once you have a reservation and are visiting DC, it's best to start your day here and then go to the Capitol and Supreme Court.
  • Eating: The National Museum of the American Indian has the best food on the mall. Another perfect place to dine is Old Ebbitt Grill The menu represents the wishes of adults and children. The location next to the White House caters to tourists and government employees alike. On our way down 15th Street, from the White House to Old Ebbitt Grill and then on to the Capitol, we were intrigued by the etchings in the sidewalk honoring citizens for volunteer work. The Extra Mile Points of Light Volunteer Walkway with memorials from the likes of Clara Barton, Paul Harris and Edgar Allen showed our kids that individuals from all walks of life can make a big difference.

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

Want to know a few other great films about politics? Click here to see all our film picks from the Kids Off the Couch store at

These books give you a good tour of Washington, D.C. Click here to see all our book picks at the Kids Off the Couch store at