Thursday, November 09, 2006

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

Last night I finally got to see Frank Popper's documentary about Jeff Smith's failed bid for Dick Gephardt's congressional seat. It was just stunning. Jeff surprised anyone who knew him when he decided to run. He was an adjunct professor at Wash U and St. Louis U, didn't even have health insurance. His parents thought he was a bit addlepated, his grandmother told a friend who'd gotten a letter asking for a donation that she ought to save her money. Someone described him as looking like he's 12-years-old, buying his clothes from Garanimals, and sounding like he's castrated.

Undeterred, he began knocking on doors, making calls, and assembling a staff of mostly former students who were absolutely brilliant and absolutely inexperienced, some as young as 20, to help manage his campaign.

Two years ago, I happened on his website. It was a Friday, and on Sunday I was giving a voter registration party. On a whim, I e-mailed him, suggesting he might want to come if he could. Shot in the dark. He came, late, after bowling with rapper Nellie earlier in the afternoon. Within five minutes, every one of us knew this 29-year-old was headed for greatness.

He's charming, funny, articulate, passionate and principled. He spent his childhood playing basketball on a team that was otherwise entirely black kids from the north side. To this day, they remain friends.

That experience was seminal. He majored in black American studies and political science. He worked for the city's school board, which opened his eyes to the entrenched deadwood that cripples the system. He started a charter school focusing on math and science for inner city kids, feeding them breakfast and keeping them two hours longer that anywhere else. He taught in universities.

So when he started the campaign, he knew what he was talking about, was passionate, a perpetual motion machine, and in the end, had amassed 350 volunteers and the reluctant admiration of the cognoscenti.

He came within a hair of upsetting the name-brand candidate, Russ Carnahan, a Casper Milquetoast if ever there was one.

What is most striking about this film is the power of passion in the face of apparent insurmountable obstacles. It puts the lie to most political strategies which hang on touching key phrases that "resonate" with voters, monumental media buys, and often, the most Machiavellian and pernicious schemes they deem palatable to voters.

Ultimately, this is the story of the authentic voice over the well-studied one. This, if you've been noticing, is near and dear to our hearts. It's our presiding principle, our "branding statement," if you will. But unlike many branding statements which seek to paint AnyCorp in its best light, we left that in our past where it belongs. It's a freeing thing, and empowering, too. Just ask Missouri Senator-Elect, Jeff Smith.

An award winning documentary chronicles Jeff Smith's first campaign, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?". It's won the people's choice award at the Silverdoc Festival, and is one of five finalists in the International Documentary Festival. It is in the nomination process for an Academy Award.

Frank Popper was the man behind responsible for every face of the film that wasn't Jeff's. I was blown away, and so proud of of them both. Here's the trailer.