Americans love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington because it's about an ordinary man who stands up to power and says, We're taking our country back. It seems like ancient history now, but I remember it vividly. I was a young mother—Track had just been born—and I was watching a revolution on television. It was 1989 when it began. First in Poland, then in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Romania—the dominoes of dictatorship fell. And then, soon after the decade turned, the Soviet Union—the dictatorship that was responsible for all the other fallen dictatorships—met its fate. I watched in August 1991 as Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the Kremlin and faced down a coup by Communist hard-liners. By New Year's Day 1992, the Soviet Empire was no more. It was a dizzying moment to be free. For my entire life, many Americans had been told by the propaganda mouthpieces of the Communist regimes—not to mention plenty of others in the free world—that Soviet communism was the way of the future. We had been told it was a more just and democratic form of government because it guaranteed the equality of all. We had been told that it was Americans, not the Russians or the Poles or the Chinese, who were living in an authoritarian society. After all, the Soviet constitution promised its citizens dozens of rights, including the right to work, the right to leisure, the right to health care and housing, and some rights that sound very familiar to Americans, such as freedom of speech, press, and religion.
None of these rights meant anything in the Soviet Union, of course. They were words on paper and nothing more. The reason, I think, is important for Americans to understand. It speaks as much to the wonderful uniqueness of our Constitution as it does to the hollowness of the Soviet document. In 1987, just a few years before the Soviet Empire began to fall, America celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of our Constitution. That year, in his State of the Union Address, President Reagan talked with his usual courage and clarity about the special magic of the American Constitution: I've read the constitutions of a number of countries, including the Soviet Union's. Now, some people are surprised to hear that they have a constitution, and it even supposedly grants a number of freedoms to its people. Many countries have written into their constitution provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Well, if this is true, why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional?
Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it's so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the people. In those other constitutions, the Government tells the people of those countries what they're allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the Government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others. Virtually every other revolution in history has just exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is their servant.