If you’re a Democrat living in the Borough of Flemington, you might get a call from me today. I’m one of the Democratic County Committee people in this town and we want to invite you to something. This event: Politics on Tap: Meet Our New NJ State Assemblyman Roy Freiman – Thursday night in Flemington. Incredibly, here in crimson Hunterdon, both our LD-16 Assembly members are Dems; Andrew Zwicker, elected 2015, now Roy Freiman elected in November. We’re having a meet-and-greet for all the Dems in our Borough to meet Roy.
With Jimmy Stewart: I started calling through my list watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, because that’s how I roll. Did you know that the character of Senator Jefferson Smith (Stewart) was based on Sen. Rush Holt of West Virginia? Youngest person popularly elected to the Senate * and father of scientists-congressmen (my old boss) Rush Holt.
Filibustering: Here’s something else you might not know. In 2005 on the Princeton campus, came a famous student protest. Rush Holt was there, and recreated part of his father’s best-known moment in the Senate, the very filibuster Frank Capra saw and based the Jimmy Stewart character on.
In the U.S. Senate in 2005, Republican Sen. Bill Frist (Princeton ’74) was threatening to reduce the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster, if the Dems tried to use that tactic to block Pres. George Bush’s judicial nominees. To show support for the filibuster itself, and the right of Dems to use it, Princeton students staged their own mock filibuster. And they did that in front of the Frist Student Center on campus, named for Bill First, whose $25 million gift built the place. They called it Filibuster Frist.
Here’s why it became famous: It was perfect synchronicity; stage a mock filibuster (great visuals, incredible to watch), in front of the building named for the guy trying to kill the filibuster. Guaranteed news coverage. And it got it. CNN broadcast live from there. AP. Thom Hartmann. Newspapers.
The idea was just for a few hours – someone speaking continuously, taking turns, no break, students than anyone else who showed up, standing up just like they have to do in the Senate. But it got so much attention, they kept it going. First, overnight, then day after day, in Spring weather, including driving rain. the commitment to making sure the point was made was extraordinary. Remember, all these students also had class.
The tent: A core group of 12 organizers took turns in a 3 sided tent positioned 10 feet from a little table with a rainbow beach umbrella over it, because of rain. Inside that tent, students furiously worked the internet, scheduling filibuster participants and live-streaming it all from a laptop webcam. If you looked into the tent, you’d see just a little sea of Princeton students, heads down, every laptop bearing an Apple logo.
Non-stop talking: And under the beach umbrella, amateur filibusterers read from: the bios of Bush’s judicial nominees, the papers of Einstein (once a local), the Declaration of Independence, the Princeton University student phonebook, pi calculated into hundreds of digits. And some people just talked – about the paper they should be writing, their love life, their favorite socks. Anything. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, no stopping.
Rep. Rush Holt did time under the striped beach umbrella, too. He read from Aesop’s Fables, the same stories his father read in the U.S. Senate in 1936 in his own famous filibuster, the one that inspired Frank Capra to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The 24-hour webcam – the first time I’d ever seen that – went worldwide. When one of the organizers in the tent mentioned they were hungry, people all over the country watching started sending pizzas from local pizza joints in town. When some assholes started harassing them in the middle of the night, somebody watching at Harvard called administrators at Princeton to wake up and get security around them.
Mr. & Ms. Smith & Friends Go to Washington: After 2 weeks of this, how to end it? Inspired by Princeton, other filibusters were popping up on campuses across the country. They thought they should go to Washington. I helped a little, making sure Rush Holt knew this, and he – a big supporter – made arrangements. And so it was that one day, with students still filibustering, a bus drove up to Frist Student Center, and still filibustering the entire drive down I-95, the students arrived outside the U.S. Capitol (covered by TIME Magazine), where inside on the House floor, Democratic House members – including Holt and Frank Pallone – gave speeches about the students outside still filibustering, how they put their lives on hold for more than two weeks to make a point. If you were watching C-SPAN, you saw it. Then, several members of Congress walked outside, and joined Filibuster Frist, the non-stop, 2-week, filibuster that by now hundreds of people had joined and thousands had watched. Mother Jones named it Protest of the Year.
Blue Jersey: And one of those 12 organizers who dreamed up Filibuster Frist, staffed that rainy 3-sided tent, and live-streamed it to the world? Juan Melli; founder of Blue Jersey. In the last photo, in the 3-sided tent on a rare sunny day, that’s Juan, leaning back talking to another student.
* Or was he the youngest senator? This is the kind of thing asterisks were made for