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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Fictional View of the Filibuster

Liberal group's ad features movie hero Jimmy Stewart. But historic reality was often ugly.


A $5-million TV ad campaign by People for the American Way portrays the Senate filibuster as a noble tool of American democracy. The ad uses footage from Frank Capra’s classic 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – a famous scene in which the hero, played by James Stewart, engages in a 23-hour filibuster to prevent his expulsion from the US Senate on trumped-up corruption charges.

Real-life filibusters are another matter, however. They can be used for good or evil. In fact, segregationist Southern senators used filibusters to preserve the poll tax and block civil rights and anti-lynching legislation for generations. Among the real-life practitioners were the late Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi.


This ad uses a persuasion technique that might be called “innocence by association.” It associates the filibuster with one of America’s favorite movie heroes while ignoring the sometimes dark purposes for which the filibuster has been used.

 People For The American Way Foundation Ad:
“Filibuster – Mr. Smith”

Mr. Smith: Wild horses aren’t going to drag me off this floor until those people have heard everything I’ve got to say, even if it takes all winter.

Ted Nonini, Firefighter: That’s the “Mr. Smith” who went to Washington, filibustering the Senate to do what’s right and fair.

Hi. I’m a Republican, a common sense Republican. I like that my party controls the White House and the Congress. But I also know that our democracy works best when both parties are speaking out and being heard. Mr. Smith knew it, too. That’s why he was using the filibuster – so that the other point of view could be heard. The filibuster’s been around 200 years and God knows our party used it whenever we needed it. But we’re a two party system – and America works best when no one party has absolute power. It’s just plain common sense. So write your senators today and don’t let anyone kill the filibuster.

Mr. Smith: In other words I’ve got a piece to speak, and blow hot or cold, I’m gonna speak it.

‘Save the Filibuster’

The People for the American Way Foundation says it is spending $5 million on the ad — which comes in both 60- and 30-second versions. Their aim, according to the PFAW Web site, is to “save the filibuster” in order to block “a right-wing Supreme Court takeover.” There’s no vacancy on the Supreme Court at present, but PFAW and other liberal organizations point out that, without the filibuster, any judge, including a future Supreme Court justice, would need only a bare Senate majority for confirmation – 51 votes. Republicans currently hold 55 Senate seats.

Democrats have been using the threat of filibuster – protracted debate – to prevent up-or-down votes on several judges Bush has appointed to lower courts. Frustrated Republicans are considering calling for a vote to change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, which has been around in one form or another since 1806.

Under present Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate. That means ,as a practical matter, that 40 of the 100 senators can block any measure – even one that is supported by a majority – by refusing to allow it to come to a vote.

The ad makes no mention of the fight over judges or a possible future fight over the Supreme Court. Instead, it presents a view of the filibuster that is idealized and – to the extent it relies on movie footage – fictional.

Fiction vs. History

The filibuster shown in the TV ad is from the climactic scene in the 1939 Frank Capra movie, “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” The hero, Sen. Jefferson Smith, has been framed on corruption charges and is about to be expelled from the Senate. Rather than accept his fate, he takes the floor and refuses to relinquish it – a classic filibuster that prevents a vote on his expulsion. After 23 hours on the Senate floor, Smith is vindicated and virtue triumphs when a conscience-stricken fellow senator publicly confesses and exonerates Smith.

The public loved the movie, which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won one, for best original story. Some real-life senators thought less highly of it. According to the Senate historian, Democratic Majority Leader Alben Barkley described the film as “silly and stupid” and said it made the Senate look like “a bunch of crooks.”

In reality, the filibuster is simply and by definition the use of obstructionist tactics to delay legislative action. The legislation being blocked can be good, bad, or indifferent, depending on one’s point of view. The historical reality is that the filibuster was the means by which the segregationist South blocked federal civil rights legislation for many decades after a majority favored it.

One practitioner was Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an avowed white supremacist. The real-life Sen. Bilbo was quite a contrast with the fictional Sen. Smith. In 1947, a few years after the movie, Sen. Bilbo found himself facing real charges of pocketing money intended for his campaign and intimidating black voters during his re-election campaign of the previous year. Bilbo wasn’t sworn in, even though Southern colleagues launched a filibuster that threatened to paralyze the Senate until he was allowed to take his seat. Bilbo went back to Mississippi and died of cancer before the matter could be resolved.

Jefferson Smith’s fictional 23-hour filibuster was actually eclipsed many years later in real life, when Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes – still the Senate record for a one-man filibuster. He finished the morning of Aug. 29, 1957. Thurmond, who was then a Democrat, was staging an  attempt to block a weak civil-rights bill that even some other Southerners favored.

Filibusters continued to block serious civil rights legislation right up until 1964, when the Senate was finally able to muster the two-thirds majority that was then required to end debate. The last to filibuster against the landmark 1964 legislation was Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes, finishing the morning of June 10 – the 57th day of debate on the measure.

It is one of the ironies of US politics that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which lobbied so long for the 1964 civil rights bill, is currently lobbying to save the filibuster. In a recent “action alert,” the NAACP said that eliminating the filibuster would allow “right-wing extremists to be confirmed to lifetime appointments on the federal bench.”

Misstating the Issue

The PFAW ad also misstates the issue. It features firefighter Ted Nonini saying that the movie Senator Smith was using the filibuster “so that the other point of view could be heard” and adding, “I also know that our democracy works best when both parties are speaking out and being heard.” In fact, eliminating the filibuster would still allow all senators ample opportunity to speak and be heard. What’s actually at stake is whether a minority of 40 senators will continue to have the power to block legislation favored by a  majority — particularly the confirmation of Bush’s judicial nominees.

We of course take no position on whether the filibuster should or should not be preserved, or whether any or all of Bush’s judicial nominees should or should not be confirmed. We merely note that real-life filibusters don’t necessarily look like the fictional one shown in the TV ad.

Update, April 4: People for the American Way President Ralph Neas takes issue with our critique. As a courtesy to him, and a service to our readers, we have posted the full text of a letter he sent us under “supporting documents,” below.

Neas calls our article “deeply flawed,” but we believe his letter contains misleading statements.

He refers to the filibuster as “extended” debate, when in fact the filibuster makes use of Senate rules allowing unlimited debate unless 60 senators vote to set a time limit.

More importantly, he says the filibuster “reflects the wisdom of the founding fathers’ commitment to checks and balances.” But the drafters of the Constitution had nothing to do with it. According to Sarah Binder & Stephen S. Smith, authors of a 1997 book on the history of the filibuster:

Binder & Smith: The right to extended debate was not created until 1806, when the Senate cleaned up its rulebook and dispensed – probably by mistake – with the rule that allowed a majority to limit the debate. Filibusters did not begin in earnest until the newly formed Democratic and Whig parties formed several decades later.


Supporting Documents

View the full text of Ralph Neas letter regarding this article, containing what we believe are misleading statements.


Watch PFAW Ad: “Filibuster – Mr. Smith”


“October 17, 1939: ‘Mr. Smith’ Comes to Washington,” US Senate Historian, Historical Minute Essays on US Senate Web site, undated.

“August 21, 1947: Member’s Death Ends a Senate Predicament,” US Senate Historian, Historical Minute Essays on US Senate Web site, undated.

The Last, Hoarse Gasp,” Time Magazine, 9 Sep 1957.

“June 10, 1964: Civil Rights Filibuster Ended,” US Senate Historian, Historical Minute Essays on US Senate Web site, undated.