Mr. Schiff goes to Washington
There is a moment at the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when it appears our titular hero — played by Jimmy Stewart — is defeated. He has been falsely accused of corruption, undermined by a media establishment that is alternately cynical and corrupt, and is filibustering the United States Senate in one last, desperate battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Stewart delivers one last, raspy-voiced tribute to lost causes, then collapses in exhaustion.
I was reminded of Frank Capra's classic movie on Wednesday night as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) closed the first day of opening arguments in President Trump's impeachment trial. No, Schiff doesn't possess the impossible saintliness of Stewart's virginal Senator Jeff Smith, a man elevated to the nation's capital from a career as a Boy Scout leader. But he didn't much resemble a thundering prosecutor nailing his prey to the wall, either. Instead, Schiff sounded like a man who knew he is making the most important case of his lifetime — and, through no fault of his own, is failing.
Schiff sounded exhausted, and who could blame him after such a long day? He sounded resigned as he concluded the day by praising the civil servants — Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — who testified about Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine's leaders into undermining former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his chief rivals in this year's presidential campaign.
"They risked everything, their careers, and yes, I know what you're asked to decide may risk yours, too," Schiff told the Senate. "But if they could show the courage, so can we."
It was a noble call that no doubt will go unheeded. Forget what you see in the old black-and-white movies. Mr. Smith was a fairy tale. There is no room for courage in today's real-life Senate. We know how this story is going to end, and it will not be with the triumph of justice.
Let us back up for a second, though. Schiff didn't end the day with a dramatic collapse. And he wasn't filibustering, though you could forgive viewers for thinking otherwise: He and the other House impeachment managers, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), held the Senate floor for hours, slowly and methodically building their case against the president. The atmosphere — late in the day at least — was funereal, at best.
That seems appropriate. The long-awaited impeachment and trial of Trump is right and necessary, but it also feels like it might be the end of a certain way of understanding America and American governance. Like Frank Capra's best movies, that understanding was noble, but also a bit of a fairy tale — one of endless progress, of democracy continually perfecting itself, of exceptionalism. Even the most hypocritical politicians paid tribute to that vision, pretended to live up to it and challenged Americans to do the same. Trump does not. He wears his vices on his sleeve, calls them "perfect," persuades his followers to do the same, and dares you to do something about it. It is a grubbier version of the America he leads, one that finds greatness not in aspiring to do better but in finding out how much you can get away with. Everybody does it, after all.
It is a vision that seems destined to win this moment. Senate Republicans will not betray Trump. A few of them may believe they support him for the good of the country. Most probably know better, but — despite Schiff's pleas — won't sacrifice their careers to say so publicly. The result seems likely to be a president who finds himself entirely liberated from the threat of punishment, willing to do whatever he wants to get whatever he wants. Remember that his infamous call with Ukraine's president took place one day after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his testimony in the Russia scandal. The end of the impeachment, then, means Trump will most likely double down on using his official powers to investigate and punish opponents, undermine free and fair elections, and abuse power in ever-more-spectacular fashion.
Mr. Smith ends when the film's villain — played by the always excellent Claude Rains — rushes the Senate floor after the hero's collapse and, conscience-stricken, confesses his crimes publicly. There will be no deus ex machina in Mr. Schiff's story, no tearful last-second repentance by President Trump before God and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Mr. Schiff is making the case of his life, but the audience is ready to move on. This impeachment is not a fairy tale. There will be no happy ending.
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