Wall Street and the US Government: Where's Jimmy Stewart When We Need Him?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How fitting that the scandalous relationship between Goldman Sachs and the Obama administration (thank you Glenn Greenwald) and Goldman Sachs' "no value added to the American people's way of life" methods of earning the bulk of its profits (thanks Dylan Ratigan) and a brilliant analysis of the overall control Wall Street has over Washington (thank you Frank Rich) have all come out on or about the 17th or October.

"What's so special about the 17th of October?" you ask?

Here's what's so special (thanks to Wikipedia)...

When it was first released -- the film premiered in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 1939, sponsored by the National Press Club, an event to which 4000 guests were invited, including 45 senators -- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was attacked by the Washington press, and politicians in the U.S. Congress, as anti-American and pro-Communist for its portrayal of corruption in the American government. While Capra claims in his autobiography that some senators walked out of the premiere, contemporary press accounts are unclear about whether this occurred or not, or whether senators yelled back at the screen during the film.

That's right. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- perhaps the most perfect portrayal of systemic corruption in politics ever put on film -- had its world premiere 70 years ago yesterday.

I've seen this film many times. If you haven't seen it lately, I urge you to do so quickly. Because there's something in that film that America desperately needs.

If you know the film and think I'm talking about American needing a straight-talking senator or congressperson, I'm not.

As much as I love the classic filibuster by "Jeff Smith" that leads to the downfall of the film's Taylor machine, I believe the world -- and the Congress -- of 2009 is significantly different from that portrayed in the film. I believe that "we, the people" can no longer expect one man or woman of conscience to change the system from within Washington, DC.

While I hope the work of Glen Greenwald, Dylan Ratigan, and Frank Rich has gotten you plenty steamed, I'm going to ask you to watch this interview with Ralph Nader (conducted by, so that we can begin a dialogue about what to do, not just about how angry we are.

In this interview, Mr. Nader discusses his new book "Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us." This novel -- Mr. Nader's first -- falls into the category known in the literary world as a practical uptopia. "I call it a fictional vision that could become a new reality. Some known and not-well-known people
appear in fictional roles. I invite your imaginative engagement," he says.

Personally, I think this is a brilliant move by Mr. Nader, because as Proverbs 29:18 says "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Mr. Nader is providing us with a vision. A vision of a particular kind of action -- by a group of progressive-thinking, very wealthy individuals -- that results in the creation of a well-thought-out effort that succeeds in giving power back to "we, the people." (Note: In this interview, Mr. Nader also does an interesting job of analyzing President Obama's psychology -- his need to compromise. Coincidentally, Maureen Down does the same thing in today's NY Times.

Whether you agree with Mr. Nader's scenario or not, at least he's presenting a roadmap we can discuss. He's not just complaining. He's suggesting what to do.

(And, if Mr. Nader and Ms. Dowd's takes on Pres. Obama's psychology turns out to be correct, the need for us to start a discussion about what to do has, in my opinion, just doubled. Because we may have elected a man who is willing to put the most critical issues of the day on the table -- (finally, thank God) -- but who doesn't have the leadership skills to resolve those issues in a way that produces the kind of progress the times demand. But that's okay. That's what we're here to do, I guess.)

So, Mr. Nader's scenario is a starting point for discussion. The very wealthiest of the progressive side of our society decide to help us regain control of our lives and our country from those who have that power right now.

Here's the first thing I'm going to add to the discussion Mr. Nader has started:

The Corporate Social Responsibility movement. Especially, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and The UN Global Compact (UNGC).

You see, there's a movement within the business community to stop this "Thanks for bailing us out, but we're in this just for ourselves" Wall Street attitude. It's a movement to build the values of environmental stewardship, human rights, fair labor relations, and fighting corruption into the DNA of businesses around the world.

Never heard of it? I'm not surprised.

BSR just held its annual conference. But you wouldn't know it from reading the news. According to Google, the only news coverage of this conference -- one in which approximately 1000 business leaders and managers met to discuss making the world work better rather than worse - was a pre-conference interview with BSR's president, Aron Cramer, conducted by and posted on the Reuters web site...

That's it. Pretty amazing... and sad.

You'd think that with all the interest in how much damage Wall Street has done that this activity that's completely the opposite would draw some media attention.

But apparently mainstream coverage of the corporate social responsibility movement is not yet an idea whose time has come in the minds of our media's editors and producers.

Of course, that's if the mainstream media even knows about this movement. And I have evidence they do. I personally talked to Katie Couric about all this at the Paley Center for Media a couple of years ago. (Sorry to call you out on this, Katie. And I know how busy you are with other world events. But you did seem interested in the subject at the time. And I've been hoping you'd follow up with me. Well, maybe "timing is everything," and now is the time!)

These editors and producers apparently don't know about -- or are choosing not to cover -- The UNGC's Principles of Responsible Investing either.

Well, perhaps the media will cover the UNGC's Leadership Summit, which is held every three years and next June will be held at UN HQ in NYC. The list of USA-based corporations that belong to The Global Compact include the Campbell Soup Co., Cicso Systems, Coca-Cola Company, DuPont, Ford, Intel, JCPenny, and Nike.

Come on CBS, NBC, and ABC ... Fox, CNN, and MSNBC ... there's a story worth reporting here!!!

So, the first point I've added to Mr. Nader's discussion is that the corporate world is not universally evil. It's just that the "non-evil" side of that world is practically invisible to the public at large. (And how can the public support something it doesn't know exists?)

And here's the second point: We don't need progressive billionaires to start getting organized.

We can do this ourselves. Back in 2000, the sociologist Paul Ray (in his 2000 book "The Cultural Creatives") estimated there were 65 million Americans who were thinking creatively about society's problems. And in the 2008 election, millions of us contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Obama for President campaign.

People Power. It's an option. And with today's social networking tools, self-organizing would be a simple task. I'm not saying the help of people like Ted Turner wouldn't help. But what I am suggesting is that it's not essential that this start with people like Mr. Turner.

It can start with people like you and me.

My first experience in political activism as an adult came in 1979. It was after President Carter gave his famous "malaise speech".

Pres. Carter was criticized at the time for saying there was something wrong with America. (Boy, do we hate being told to look in the mirror as a country!) But I didn't see it that way at all.

I saw President Carter telling us we needed to take responsibility for our country. And in 1979 -- at 24 years of age -- I wrote an OpEd about how we could do just that by becoming much more involved as citizens, by becoming, essentially, the largest interest group that our elected representatives had to deal with. I ultimately presented my essay on WQXR radio -- "the radio station of the New York Times" -- here in NYC.

I didn't know what to do with this personal breakthrough at the time. But now -- 30 years later -- I find myself coming full circle and wanting, once again, to urge us all to rise up (as we did in last year's election) and not just "take back our country" (as if what's going on out there is "all bad all the time") but also support those existing, healthy trends that have the potential to contribute to the transformation that we so desperately need: in their case, contributing from inside the system.

There are good trends out there -- a healthy, "alternative DNA" to the social Darwinism of Wall Street -- even if we're not currently hearing about them in the mainstream media. The corporate social responsibility movement is one such trend.

President Obama is a very good man, when you look at his intentions. He may not have the leadership skills to do more than put the most important issues of the day on the table, but that's not an insignificant thing!

And from that starting point, we can carry the ball forward, working with him in spirit even if we don't get to see him personally at the White House. (I think he'll meet with us eventually, once he sees that we're here, all 65 million of us, if Paul Ray's calculations were correct.)

Am I calling for another variation on the Tea Party movement? Well, I'm not sure how this should be structured. But I am reminded of one very special public display of strength and intention that I participated in over 20 years ago. How many of you remember "Hands Across America"?

It took place on May 25, 1986. and it's aim was to raise money to fight hunger and homelessness in America.

I'm not sure how many billionaires were involved, but a great many celebrities were. It was organized by the USA for Africa group, which was founded when the song We Are The World was first recorded. There was corporate funding for this event, apparently principally from The Coca-Cola Company.

But it was the power of the people physically standing together holding hands all across our great country that demonstrated who owns this place. And in many ways, it was a more powerful statement than the one "Jeff Smith" makes from the floor of the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. You could physically see it. And -- with its celebrity participation and theme song -- the news media couldn't help but cover it.

Perhaps a similar national "demonstration of whose country this is" could be organized in time for next year's mid-term elections. That sounds like the right timing to me!

What do you think?

I titled this essay, in part, "Where's Jimmy Stewart when we need him?" And I'd like to end by suggesting this answer: He's here, inside all of us, if we'll just take a look.

That's the power of the entertainment industry. It can show us our better angels and encourage us to do the right thing based on what we see portrayed on the screen in front of us.

Once again, I urge you all to watch "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" sometime soon. I hope President Obama does this as well.

And if you can, go visit The Jimmy Stewart Museum in his home town of Indiana, PA (about 60 miles East of Pittsburgh). I've been there, and it's a lot like the town in another classic Jimmy Stewart motion picture: It's a Wonderful Life.

And then let's figure out how we can take back our country and do so with the help of those who -- while they may not be in the news (yet!) -- want to do so too!
UPDATE Tuesday 2:25am

To give those of you questioning how entertainment can be used for good today, I offer this example: the first 15 minutes of a special educational event held at the UN earlier this year in which the UN's work was presented in conjunction with film clips and actors and creators of the SyFy Channel's landmark series "Battlestar Galactica".