Mr. Smith flips off Washington

Sen. Bob Smith deserts the GOP in the middle of his long-shot bid for the presidency.

By Jake Tapper
July 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Bob Smith -- a conservative, three-term Republican U.S. senator with both a face
and fortitude recalling the craggy granite of his home state of New Hampshire --
woke Tuesday morning at 5:45 to prepare for his big day. At 2:15 Tuesday
afternoon, Smith was scheduled to stand on the floor of the U.S. Senate and
resign from the Republican Party.

Smith felt he had found a soul mate in the disillusioned, fictional Mr. Smith as
played by Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." So, pinching some
melodrama from the syrupy film, the real Mr. Smith re-created a tour of the
monuments, just like the fictional Mr. Smith took towards the end of the film.

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He went to the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington
National Cemetery where his parents are buried. He got to the Lincoln Memorial
where, again, he recalled the 1939 Frank Capra film.

"There's a lot of fancy words around this town," Smith would later say,
paraphrasing the fictitious Mr. Smith, whose disgust with Washington deal-making
and image-furbishing Bob Smith feels mirrors his own. "Some of them are carved in
stone. And some of them are put there so suckers like me can read them."

Eventually Smith found his way to the Senate chamber where, to a capacity crowd
of spectators (if not senators), he decried a party more concerned with winning
elections than with the ideals carved in its platform, and he officially resigned
from the GOP. Smith insists his announcement has nothing to do with the
publicity spike this gives to his stalled bid for president, with his standings
in most polls measured in negative numbers. But Smith's move today left political
insiders completely baffled and largely unconvinced.

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"Everybody thinks it's a mistake," says a Republican official. "Everybody
thinks he's lost his mind. He votes 98 percent of the time with the Republican
Party; if his views differed more, I'd understand. I view the Republican Party as
a party that is conservative in principle and philosophy yet diverse in its
membership. We're working very hard not to be seen as extremists -- which is
exactly what the left wants to paint us as. Social issues [like abortion] play an
important role in our party, but they're not the consuming interest of our party.
Bob Smith and Gary Bauer are playing into the left's hands by acting like
extremists."

Bottom line, says the Republican official, is that Smith's presidential campaign
is lackluster, and the Republican Senate leadership has a different agenda than
he does. "He's not getting attention, so he's going to take his marbles and
leave."

"I thought it was all very odd," confides one Democratic senator. "It doesn't
seem to accomplish his objectives. There are plenty of Republicans within his own
party who agree with him. As a Democrat, I've walked into caucus meetings and
thought, 'My God, this is not my place.' But you don't leave. You try to change
things from within."

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"On the other hand," the senator jokes, "he never has to go to those very boring
and wasteful caucus lunches ever again."

There are a lot of meetings Smith is going to miss. His status among his formerly
fellow Republicans is in doubt. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott announced that
the Senate Republican Conference would meet either Wednesday or Thursday of this
week to decide what role, if any, Smith would play in the conference, and whether
or not he would be stripped of his chairmanship of the Senate Ethics Committee.

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Though Smith says he will pursue his presidential bid, he said he doesn't even
know which party's presidential nomination he's going to pursue. There's been
talk of his attending the U.S. Taxpayers Association convention in September, but
at a news conference today he admitted he had no idea how many voters the
organization represented. When one reporter asked him what he thought of the
party's affiliation with "Christian reconstructionism" he didn't seem to
understand what she was talking about.

In his 47-minute speech, he quoted Lincoln, Mark Twain, former Sen. Mike
Mansfield, George Washington, Edgar Guest and the Senate chaplain. He recalled
his coming of age as a Republican during the Dewey-Truman matchup. He recalled
the glory days of the Reagan revolution with its roots in God and guns and
military might.

But in the end, Smith kept coming back to that same damn Capra treacle.

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It's a stretch.

The only similarity Washington insiders saw between Bob Smiths announcement and
the fable of Jefferson Smith is that both are rooted in fantasy. But there are
some important differences between the two Smiths as well.

In the movies, Jefferson Smith was a naof, hand picked by party bosses and then
framed when he refused to vote to line their pockets. In real life, Bob Smith is
a right-wing firebrand frustrated with his party's attempts to appease party
moderates and by his own political impotence.

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In the movies, Jefferson Smith was always a Boy Scout and he refused to ever
change. In real life, Bob Smith served in the House for six years, in the Senate
since 1990, all the while engaging in polling, negative campaigning,
go-along-to-get-along and all the things he derides now.

In the movies, Jefferson Smith was exonerated when his corrupt nemesis, as played
by Claude Raines, finally gave up that lamest of Hollywood ploys, the
last-minute, packed-house confession. In real life, it is entirely possible that
Tuesday's floor speech was the sound of Bob Smith falling off the face of the
Earth.

His speech was something of an anticlimax. But it wasn't a bad speech. A small group
of his colleagues served as his primary audience, including not only Majority
Leader Trent Lott, Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles, and conservative
stalwarts like Jesse Helms and Larry Craig, but also a handful of Democrats like Chris
Dodd and John Breaux. Before them and a packed press gallery of tourists who had
fortuitously stumbled onto an asterisk of history, Smith delivered his address
with the serenity of a man who believes in what he's doing.

Perhaps that's because this speech was a long time in coming. Smith said his
problems with the GOP establishment first came in 1982, before he was even
elected, when a coterie of RNC advisers shuttled up to New Hampshire to try to
convince him to back down and let a richer candidate scoop up the House GOP
nomination. But Smith -- who'd been caught up in the simple declarations of
conservatism by Ronald Reagan way back in '76 -- was having none of it. He wanted
to be a part of the revolution. Smith won his party's nomination that year, only
to lose to a Democrat in the general election.

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But two years later, he was elected to Congress, a willing foot soldier in the
Reagan revolution. And through it all, Smith has seen his party through the
rickety roller coaster ride of the '80s and '90s. From Reagan (Yay!) to Bush
(Boo!) to Newt (Yay!) to yet another Bush (Boo!). The lesson Smith has gleaned
from it all: The GOP wins elections when it stands for conservative values. When
it strays, Democrats grab hold of the reins.

Which is what's going on now, he says. "Again, I see this tug-of-war between
principled ideals and the pragmatism of those who say we need to elect
Republicans and we need to keep the conservatives quiet." He faults the
pollsters, spin doctors, advisors, party bureaucrats and the like who tell
Republicans what to say and what not to say instead of just preaching what they
believe.

This is not the first time Smith has struck out against the Republican majority.
As chair of the Senate Ethics Committee he presided over the hearings which eventually led to
the ouster of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Smith was among those who recommended
Packwood step down. "I admit, I've been a part of all of this," he said. "Mea
culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa."

Smith lives the principles of the Republican platform. "Harry Truman said that
party platforms are contracts with the people," Smith said. "I agree." He said
the party has betrayed the party platform on myriad issues from backing away
from supporting the Second Amendment to threatening national sovereignty via the United
Nations.

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But the greatest treason for Smith is the party's hedging on abortion. He
continually referred to "Mary Frances," a young girl who was born at
five and a half months of term and eventually grew up to break open her piggy bank and offer Smith's
presidential campaign whatever she had. Smith was incredulous at the indifference
his colleagues have shown him on the "35 million babies killed since Roe v.
Wade." How could any Republican senator oppose a pro-life Supreme Court nominee
like Robert Bork, which six of them did in '87, and support the confirmation of
an ACLU-liberal-type like Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- which only three of them did
not? How come no one has co-sponsored his bill which would extend 14th Amendment
protection to the unborn?

Toward the end of his speech, Smith took a few minutes to berate RNC chieftain
Nicholson for leaking news of his party resignation by writing a "petty" letter
to him and releasing it to the media. He also dissed the "nameless, faceless
bureaucrats" in the GOP who were taking shots at him anonymously in print.

After the speech, Smith was besieged with senators running the political gamut,
from liberal Barbara Boxer to conservative Jesse Helms, congratulating him for
his courage. Up in the press gallery, fatuous members of the press corps wafted
their opinions amongst each other, then went home and all but forgot that
anything had ever happened.

While baffling to most Republicans and Democrats alike, Smith's move today was
not entirely unprecedented. Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and
Richard Shelby, R-Ala., defected from the Democratic team in '95 and '94,
respectively. But Campbell and Shelby were jumping to the new Republican
majority, where promises of chairmanships and campaign contributions awaited
them. Liberal Republican Sen. Wayne Morse became an independent in 1952, but
he switched to the Democratic side before long. Rare is the senator who leaves a
political party for destination unknown.

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In the movie, Jefferson Smith held to his beliefs with the famous line, "Either
I'm dead right, or I'm crazy!" In real life, Bob Smith is still a long shot to
find a happy ending.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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