Thanksgiving's one of those all-American holidays like Halloween that may have made it to other lands (I grew up with it in Canada) but that nonetheless are inextricably linked to the U.S.A. every time you think of them. And if I were to pick a fictional character movie guest for one of the most American holidays, I'd have to pick one of the most American movie characters: Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith, from Frank Capra's 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra's movie is one of those films where the frantic rolling of your eyes brought on the cornball hokey moments is far outweighed by the feelings it evokes. Stewart's Smith is a patsy, a shlub; he only comes to the U.S. Senate as part of a dirty scheme to make millions. As played by Stewart, Smith seems like rube; a civic booster and regular Joe with outdoorsy hobbies ... but he's got an iron-strong sense of decency and kindness under all the stammers and birdcalls and woods-lore.
So, my choice is partially practical (If I had to name a fictional character I'd trust to carve the turkey, it'd be Jefferson Smith -- or Hannibal Lecter, but who wants him over?), but it's also emotional. I grew up learning about America from movies, which is like getting to know someone only by hearing them relate their dreams. But if there were plenty of nightmares (thanks to cool-and-carefree older siblings, I had the chance to be freaked out by everything from Platoon to The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a very young age), then there were the good dreams, too: Movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where you see a corrupt scheme smashed to ruin because one person stands up and says "No" -- at great risk, against long odds, and at tremendous cost. At one point, in the film's defining filibuster, Smith explains his take on the Senate's meaningless weasel-words: "I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness ... and a little looking out for the other fella, too." There's no mention of either political party in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- it's suggested that it's irrelevant -- but that line above is the kind of political philosophy I can get behind.
I'm actually applying to become a citizen, and when people ask me what my party affiliation's going to be, I joke "Somewhere between a F.D.R. Democrat and a Jimmy Stewart Republican." And I know in a world where a Presidential candidate can raise 4.2 million (as Ron Paul did Nov. 5th) or 6.2 million (as Hilary Clinton did on June 30th) dollars in one day, Frank Capra style-speeches and sentiments don't count for much. But they're better than nothing, and I think that over dinner Jefferson Smith's guts and grace and ideas -- that a nation's greatness is measured not by the wealth of some citizens, but by the opportunity and happiness of all; that politics should be driven by votes, not dollars; that, as the film puts it, " ... liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books ..." -- would serve as a reminder of the great wonderful tough challenge of American life: How good it is, and how there's still so much work do be done. And then, walking off the stuffing (I make my own cornbread) we'd all go up to the roof with a good scotch -- Jefferson Smith may be fictional, but I have a feeling he's a scotch man -- look out over the city and see what he says you'd see if you went up on the Capitol dome and looked out over America " ... the whole parade of what man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. ..." And then we'd go back down to have dessert -- apple-cranberry crisp, which I also make -- ready to face the future with the two things I always associate with Thanksgiving: A full stomach, sure, but also a hopeful heart.