In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the fictional Senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, tried to save a boys’ camp. In a real-life imitation of that Hollywood classic, New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato tried to save a typewriter factory.
On October 5, 1992, for the first time since the Senate inaugurated gavel-to-gavel television coverage of its floor proceedings in 1986, television viewers had the opportunity to watch a senator conduct an old-fashioned filibuster—a dusk-to-dawn talkathon.
Those with long memories might have recalled the intense Senate debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in which teams of filibustering senators consumed 57 days between March 26 and final passage on June 19.
The issue in 1992 involved Smith-Corona’s plans to move 875 jobs from its Upstate New York typewriter factory to Mexico to save wage costs so that it could compete against low-priced Japanese imports. Senator D’Amato chose his time well. Historically, filibusters have been most effective in achieving the goals of those who conduct them when they occur in the hectic final days of a congressional session, particularly if those days fall on the eve of congressional and presidential elections, when members desire only to leave Washington for the campaign trail. Political observers noted that Senator D’Amato, facing his own tight reelection race, could expect to benefit from the media attention that a televised classic filibuster might produce.
So as not to interrupt other Senate business—a consideration that did not exist in the classic filibusters of the pre-1965 era—D’Amato began speaking around dinner time on October 5 and continued his “gentleman’s filibuster” for 15 hours and 14 minutes. His object was to amend a pending $27 billion tax bill. Hoarse and out of things to say—and sing—he abandoned his quest at midday on October 6, after the House of Representatives had adjourned for the year, dooming any chances that his amendment would be included in the final legislation. If D’Amato had spoken for another 17 minutes, he would have broken the record Huey Long set in 1935 when he conducted the most notable filibuster in Senate history—the one that included his recipes for fried oysters and turnip-green potlikker.
Proclaiming that he had proudly stood up not only for the workers of New York but for those of the entire nation, D’Amato went on to win reelection by a mere 90,000 votes out of six million cast.