Joseph Paine

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Joseph Harrison Paine was the anti-hero of Director Frank Capra's classic political motion picture, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He stands today as the prize archetype of one who compromises his ideals and finds himself serving evil rather than good, and even adding evil to evil. Most such persons sear their consciences and become permanently stained with the corruption that they enable. Joseph Paine, in contrast, suffered a resurgence of his conscience that finally drove him to attempt suicide, and then to pour out a heartfelt public confession of all the evil he had done.

Probable associations

Joseph Paine was a United States Senator from an unnamed State in the American Midwest. Though that State is never named, it is almost certainly Colorado, for reasons explained in detail here. Paine's Senate class was Class II, because he was first elected to the Senate in 1918 (see below).

His party affiliation was almost certainly with the Democratic Party, because he had White House aspirations (impossible for a Republican in 1939), and because he sat to the left of the center aisle of the Senate floor.

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information


Joseph Paine was probably born on or about 1875. He studied law and became a trial attorney. The practice of law in the period from 1910-1918 was very difficult, particularly for a man seeking to represent those who needed lawyers most desperately—who, sadly, were also those least able to pay. He would, of course, have worked most of his cases on a contingent fee basis, by which he would receive a significant portion of whatever judgments were awarded to his clients. During this period of his life, he had one close friend: Clayton Smith, a newspaper publisher who was struggling as hard as Paine himself was.

Paine married, probably in or about 1913, and had one child, a daughter, Susan.

A murder

In or about 1918, Joseph Paine had taken the case of a miner who had found a very rich lode, only to have his claim effectively "jumped" by a powerful mining syndicate. While Paine tried again and again to complete pretrial discovery in the miner's case, Clayton Smith tried the case in his newspaper, writing article after article exposing the mining syndicate and its sharp practices.

The syndicate leaders were not pleased. They tried to proceed against Smith legally, and then turned to less honest means of intimidation. Smith was unmoved. And then, in the summer of 1918, Joseph Paine received a tearful call from Clayton Smith's wife. She had found him slumped over his rolltop desk, still wearing his hat, dead from a bullet wound to the back.

The Senator

How the murder affected Paine's client's case, the film does not reveal. Possibly he had to settle out-of-court for a considerably lower sum than the sum that the miner had originally prayed for in his complaint. This much one can infer: a few days following the murder, Paine received another visitor in his own office: one James Taylor, the effective and unofficial head of the Democratic Party in Colorado. Taylor had a simple proposition for Paine: how would he like to become a Senator? Such a thing would have been unheard-of about five years earlier—but President Woodrow Wilson had successfully promulgated the Seventeenth Amendment, by which Senators were elected popularly, not chosen by State legislatures.

The deal was less than honest from the start, as Paine would later be forced to admit. The exact nature of the "compromises" that Paine made with his ideals were never made clear, but in essence Joseph Paine ceased to be an independent actor and thinker, and became James Taylor's errand boy in the Senate—or rather, one of two errand boys that Taylor had. The other, at the time of the film's major action, was Senator Sam Foley.

Paine would later say that he was able to serve Colorado "in a hundred honest ways," leading to a state of affairs that saw Colorado having the lowest rate of unemployment and the highest per capita Federal grant monies. The compromises probably had as much to do with those Federal grants as with any other activity.

For twenty years, Paine did Taylor's bidding, in addition to voting on other, much better known pieces of legislation, most notably the Volstead Act. At first, Paine's activities in steering grant monies back to Colorado (to projects under Taylor's control) went largely unnoticed. Paine might have had his first bad scare with the Teapot Dome scandal that brought down the Presidency of Warren G. Harding, but that scare was short-lived; evidently the excitement over the scandals surrounding Harding's activities kept Paine's activities from coming to light.

The Great Depression and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed everything. Federal grants were, if anything, far more frequent and far more lucrative than ever before, all in the name of "economic stimulus." Paine and his colleague Foley were always ready to secure as many of those grants as they could.

Sometime during this period, Paine's wife died. Paine continued to live alone in Washington, DC with his daughter, who actually made her debut into Washington society and became a fixture of the Washington cocktail circuit.

The crisis

In 1937, James Taylor conceived of his most brazen scheme yet: to ask for a grant to build a dam on Willett Creek, in Terrell Canyon, in Ambrose County. Colorado had within it more than a hundred other spots where a dam would be much more useful, but that did not matter. What mattered was that James Taylor, Kenneth Allen, and other Taylor associates held extensive landholdings that would inevitably have to be sold to the Federal government, at tremendous profit—and all of those holdings were under false names. If Paine had never felt less than comfortable with a Taylor project before, he was definitely uncomfortable now.

His discomfort was especially acute in the fall of 1939. President Roosevelt was approaching the end of his second term of office. No one (yet) expected him to run for a third term, and thus the Democratic National Convention in 1940 would be wide-open. Joseph Paine was a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination, and everyone in the Senate knew it, and frequently remarked on it to him in the Senate's cloakroom. Needless to say, a scandal at this stage would make his White House ambitions come to nothing.

Nevertheless, at Taylor's bidding, Paine and three members of the Colorado House delegation managed to insert a five-million-dollar appropriation for the Willett Creek Dam into a "Deficiency Bill" meant to address certain "deficiencies" in Federal grant appropriations from the previous term of Congress. Now, at last, the Deficiency Bill was about to come to a vote in the Senate, after at least one, and perhaps two, House-Senate Conferences had debated the bill.

And then Sam Foley died.

Replacement needed

The news of Sam Foley's death struck Washington like a thunderclap. All the city's news organs buzzed with the news. Paine, however, had no time to notice. His first call was to the State governor, Hubert "Happy" Hopper. When Paine called him, he realized at once that he had roused the governor out of bed, on account of the two-hour time zone difference. Hopper received the news with alarm, and was barely able to take Paine's instruction to call James Taylor right away and tell him that he, Paine, would fly home—a prodigiously expensive step in those days.

Paine landed in Jackson City (the capital) and found near-chaos on his return. A surprisingly strident citizens' movement had sprung up, and several "citizens' committees" were eager to recommend a candidate to replace Senator Foley. Paine knew this, and knew the reasons for it: James Taylor's political machine had fostered very strong resentment among the citizenry. Projects like the Willett Creek Dam would only make that worse, and so Paine tried to persuade Taylor to scrap the Willett Creek Dam project altogether.

Taylor refused, saying that any delay, or especially any cancellation, would lead to an investigation into the less-than-legal landholdings. "Best to push it through and get it over with," said Taylor, who also had selected his own replacement: Horace Miller, a man who could be counted on to take orders.

Happy Hopper balked—which didn't surprise Paine very much, but which infuriated Taylor. Taylor overruled all of Hopper's politically minded objections to the Miller appointment and gave Hopper what amounted to an order. Later that day, however, Hopper came back to Taylor and Paine with the news that the citizens' committees to whom he had announced the appointment had rejected it out-of-hand, and named their own replacement candidate after all: one Henry Hill, who had a reputation as a "crackpot."

Taylor continued to press Hopper to appoint Miller anyway, as Paine essentially stood by and said nothing. And then, on the next morning, Hopper shocked both men by naming yet a third candidate.

The Boy Ranger

That candidate was Jefferson Smith, leader of the Boy Rangers youth group, and a man recently in the news for his role in single-handedly containing and extinguishing a forest fire. Paine and Taylor first heard about the appointment by reading of it in the Jackson City Star. Taylor was apoplectic, particularly as Hopper had put the appointment forward without even notifying Taylor, much less asking his permission.

Then Paine took a closer look at the article. He realized that this Jefferson Smith was a totally ingenuous person, barely old enough (under the United States Constitution) to enter the Senate, and one inclined to recite works and speeches by men like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln by heart. Hopper had claimed that the Smith appointment would bring the votes of all the parents of the many Boy Rangers in the State, and Paine saw his point—and also saw that Smith would almost certainly take any order that Paine gave him, because he would trust Paine as implicitly as an apprentice tradesman trusts his journeyman master. He expressed his assurances to Taylor, and Taylor accepted them.

An Uncomfortable Reminder

A day or so later, Paine found himself at the head table of a sumptuous banquet in Smith's honor—a banquet paid for by James Taylor. Taylor's spokesman grandly introduced Smith as a "nugget" plucked from among Colorado's common men.

When Smith began to speak, he first paid a warm tribute to Paine, even going so far as to say that Paine could represent Colorado in the Senate without anyone's help. Then Smith mentioned that he was the son of Clayton Smith. That name shocked Paine: that Clayton Smith's son should come into his life, twenty years after the elder Smith's death, had never occurred to Paine. But what made Paine less comfortable was the reminder that Jeff Smith had just given Paine of the less-corrupt man he once had been, before James Taylor had come into his law office and proposed to see him elected as a Senator. Paine barely paid attention to the rest of the festivities, even when an all-boy marching band and color guard marched into the banquet hall, to present to Jeff Smith the gift of a briefcase.

Return to Washington

The next day, Smith and Paine were on the train to Washington. Smith brought with him a large cage of carrier pigeons, saying that he intended sending them home one at a time with letters home, and entering the pigeon who flew home the fastest in an upcoming national race.

During the trip, Smith regaled Paine with a description of his all-youth newspaper, Boys' Stuff, a weekly that at the time had a million subscriptions. Paine commented that "printer's blood" clearly ran in Smith's veins, and recalled at length the story of Clayton Smith's career, and his untimely death. Before he really knew what he was saying, Paine found himself recalling something that Smith had repeated to him with almost proverbial frequency: that "lost causes" were the only causes worth fighting for.

When the train arrived, Paine's daughter Susan and four of her friends were there to greet the Senator and the Senator-designate. Paine silently laughed to himself at Smith's embarrassment when Susan and her friends rushed up to Smith and kissed him; Paine took his daughter's "forward" manner, which she had learned from her cocktail-circuit friends, for granted. Paine had just finished introducing Susan to Jeff when suddenly Jeff startled everyone by pointing out the Capitol dome (another feature of the Washington skyline that Paine had long since taken for granted). Then Smith shocked everyone further by disappearing. One minute he was present on the station platform; the next second, he wasn't.

Taylor's front man in Washington, Chick McGann, started an urgent search for Smith. Paine, for his part, retired to Washington's Madison Hotel to wait for further news. There Paine fielded a call from a rather frustrated Clarissa Saunders, who had been Foley's secretary and was now Smith's secretary. Paine was sure that Smith would know exactly where the Senate Office Building complex was, and how to find it, and asked Saunders to wait.

Eventually, Saunders called him to say that Smith had arrived at his office, "on his own steam and sober." Paine heaved a sigh of relief and asked Saunders to have Smith brought to the hotel immediately for his first interviews.

Unfavorable publicity

Smith arrived at Paine's hotel suite and apologized profusely for disappearing for five hours. Smith had, quite simply, boarded a tour bus, one of several that made a regular circuit of Washington that included Union Station, and had toured every major monument and memorial in and around Washington, even including Arlington National Cemetery. Paine accepted the apology and watched as Smith gave a series of innocuous interviews.

But the next morning, Paine saw another shocking thing. The Washington Gazette-Journal was filled with several articles about Jeff Smith, all of them mocking in tone, and containing photographs of Smith in several embarrassing poses—bird calling, wielding a hatchet, even starting a fire with the spinning-stick method. "Do I actually see this?" he asked himself aloud at the breakfast table with Susan. Immediately he blamed Saunders, and he didn't take long, by calling a few veteran reporters he knew (probably including Diz Moore, Saunders' long-term friend and persistent suitor), to determine that Saunders had given or sold access to Smith to some of the most disreputable players in the Washington press corps ("ambulance chasers," Diz scornfully called them) in return for monetary and other favors that might enable her to leave Washington for good.

Accordingly, he summoned Saunders to his own office and demanded an explanation of her behavior. Saunders was unrepentant. She said that she got paid to be a secretary, not a baby-sitter. Then she said,

Senator, when I first came to this town, my eyes were big blue question marks. Now they're big green dollar marks.

Paine then reminded Saunders, in no uncertain terms, that "some changes" would occur, and if all went as planned, Saunders could look forward to rising with Paine. In short, Joseph Paine was promising that Clarissa Saunders, if she played her cards right, could look forward to a secretarial position in the White House. (Whether he was also promising an association even more intimate than that, in consideration of his status as a widower, is impossible to determine; the only reason that he would not promise a thing like that would be that Clarissa Saunders was far below his social station.) The price was purely nominal: all she had to do was to keep Jefferson Smith occupied, make sure that such disgraceful incidents with the press did not recur, and above all, keep Jefferson Smith away from anything that smacked of politics. Saunders asked specifically whether that included the Willett Creek Dam, and Paine confirmed that.

Swearing in

In the late morning, Paine walked to the Capitol and over to the Senate Wing. As he passed through the Senate cloakroom, several of his colleagues wished him well, saying, "See you in the White House!"—an obvious reference to his White House aspirations and the still-current assumption that President Roosevelt would not seek a third term. To his relief, Jeff Smith was at his assigned desk; when Smith made a point of telling Paine that he was using the desk that Senator Daniel Webster had once used, Paine observed that the late Senator Webster certainly would not mind. He then asked Smith to hand him his credentials and wait.

The Vice President of the United States (who, under the United States Constitution, serves as President of the Senate), called the Senate to order, and then had to call the roll after Senator Milton Agnew, Democratic Party floor leader, suggested the absence of a quorum. The quorum issue settled, Paine then rose to present Smith's credentials and ask that the oath of Senatorial office be administered. The VP asked Smith to step forward—and then Senator Agnew raised a point of order, citing the embarrassing press coverage as evidence that Smith was not qualified to sit.

At first Smith tried to defend himself, and the Vice-President sharply reminded him that he had no floor privileges until he had taken the oath. Paine himself answered Senator Agnew, saying that Smith was entirely innocent in the matter and had been misquoted. Agnew made one further attempt to object, but the Vice-President overruled him and proceeded to administer the oath. That done, Senator Agnew manfully apologized to Smith, who accepted with grace. Paine told Smith,

Don't worry about the others; they're just Senators.


That evening, Smith called Paine at his home and asked to see him. Paine agreed. When Smith appeared, his suit was rumpled and the knuckles of his right hand were slighly skinned, as if he had been in a physical altercation. Incredibly, Smith confirmed Paine's unspoken assumption, that he had been in not one altercation, but several, all with the reporters who had written the lampooning stories about him.

Then Smith told Paine the real reason for his concern: that those reporters had told him that he was nothing more than an "honorary stooge," sent to "decorate a chair," and that he had to admit that they were correct. Smith suggested that perhaps Paine ought to brief him on the upcoming bills. Paine demurred, saying,

These bills have been put together by the finest legal minds. I don't understand half of them myself, and I used to be a lawyer.

Smith did not feel that this would satisfy his critics, so he pressed the matter further. Then Paine had an idea. Several of those articles had said that Smith had expressed his desire to have the government build a National Boys' Camp in Colorado, and to have boys all over America pay the government back with nickel-and-dime contributions. Paine suggested to Smith that he write a bill to accomplish precisely that. Smith warmed to the idea, saying that if he could accomplish that one act, then his entire Senate experience would be worthwhile.

At this point, Susan met Smith again, and seemed to enjoy teasing Smith. Paine did not interfere, even when Smith backed up against a table and knocked it over, causing a table lamp, an ashtray, and several items of bric-a-brac to tumble to the floor. Smith hastily picked everything up, though Paine advised him to leave them, and then beat a hasty retreat. Susan burst out laughing, and Paine said,

At the expense of some of the furniture, you seem to have made another conquest.

Conflict of Legislation

Paine was very much surprised when Smith appeared in the Senate the next day and rose to address the chair to introduce a bill. How could Smith have written a bill so quickly, even with Saunders' help? But his surprise rapidly turned to alarm when Smith gave the proposed location of his camp: Willett Creek, the same place where James Taylor's dam was to be built.

Paine rose from his desk, caught the eye of Chick McGann who was in the "Friends of Senators" portion of the gallery, and jerked his head to one side. McGann took the hint and half ran, half stumbled up the gallery steps to the exit. The two men met in the hallways and made a hasty exit from the Capitol. The two men faced a dilemma: the Deficiency Bill was scheduled for a detailed reading the next day in the Senate, and when Section Forty, the section including the dam, was read, Smith would hear that and would immediately question it.

McGann suggested taking Smith on a tour of Washington's many memorials and monuments, but Paine rejected that idea, saying, "This boy is honest, not stupid."

Then McGann opened his mouth again, and said, "Susan!"

Paine said frostily, "My daughter is not here to carry out assignments like that for anybody." But McGann insisted that they had no other recourse.

Paine broached the proposal to Susan that afternoon in their home, and Susan received the idea with girlish enthusiasm. Though the film does not make Paine's attitude clear, he might have had his first attack of shame at seeing his daughter willing to throw herself at a man for political gain. Susan knew exactly what to do: she would host a reception for some visiting foreign dignitaries ("princes" to be precise, though whether Arabic or European, the film never makes clear), and even have Saunders take Smith shopping for black-tie formal attire and a haircut and a manicure. She then would have Smith appear as her escort for this reception.

Paine did not attend this reception. Instead he sat in the Senate, listening to the reading of the Deficiency Bill. Now he wanted nothing more than to vote on that bill, see it passed, and have done with it. Sadly, that was not to be.

Smith Alerted

The first sign of the unraveling occurred when Paine returned home only to have Smith insist on seeing him there. Paine was thunderstruck to hear from Smith all about the proposed Willett Creek Dam. Apparently Saunders had blurted it all out to Smith while cleaning out her desk for a hasty departure from Washington—and what could have prompted her to take that Parthian shot, Paine never thought to speculate on.

At first, Paine tried to argue for the project on its merits. He ought to have known that Smith, with his forestry background, would have none of that. Indeed, Smith pointed out that Colorado had more than a hundred other places where a dam would be much more useful. He then mentioned having spoken to Kenneth Allen, who owned some of the land bordering Willett Creek, and Mr. Allen had said nothing about any dam. (And of course Allen wouldn't, because Allen was one of Taylor's confederates, though of course Smith did not know this.)

When Smith said that he would not vote on the Deficiency Bill until he got some questions answered, Paine told Smith that he was "fighting windmills." By way of explanation, Paine said,

You're trying to understand in a minute a project that took two years to set up, the importance, the benefits,...

At that last word, Smith asked, "Benefits? Who's Taylor?"

That came as an even greater shock. Paine asked, "What?"

"James Taylor," Smith repeated. "What has he to do with this?"

Chick McGann, who was present, rather foolishly opened his mouth to ask Smith why James Taylor should necessarily have anything to do with it. It was the wrong place, the wrong time, and the wrong question. Smith then blurted out,

I've been told that this whole thing is his idea to get graft.

That was it. The game was up. Paine desperately tried to regain the initiative by asking Smith whether he fully realized that he was now accusing Paine himself of being a party to graft. Chick McGann didn't even wait that long. He excused himself, rushed into an adjoining room, and shut the door.


Paine would only learn later that McGann was calling James Taylor. The next thing Paine knew, he was with Taylor in his hastily-taken hotel suite, along with the three Colorado House members most involved in the Willett Creek Dam project. All three were pleading with Taylor to get Smith off their case and get Smith to stop hounding them. Paine protested and expressed his resentment of Taylor for coming to Washington when he ought to have trusted Paine to deal with this affair.

Then the doorbell rang. Taylor said, "That would be Smith. Chick, let him in."

Paine was shocked all over again. Taylor had summoned Smith to this meeting! Paine knew what would happen next, and it was not pretty. He then delivered an ultimatum: if Taylor insisted on reading the riot act to Smith, then he could do it without Paine's help. "Count me out," he said.

Taylor ordered McGann to admit Smith, and then ushered Paine to the next room to ask him what he meant by "count me out." Paine tried to tell Taylor that such "steam-roller" methods as Taylor was accustomed to use were out of place in Washington. But the real reason for Paine's concern was that he did not want to see Smith disillusioned and "crucified." Taylor was worse than unmoved: he took this occasion to threaten Paine with the end of his political career, saying, "No hard feelings; we'll just have to manage without you."

Paine swallowed his gorge and apologized to Taylor. Taylor then smiled broadly and told Paine to go back to his office while Taylor talked to Smith.

Paine did return to his office, and left orders with his staff that they inform all callers that he was out-of-town. But he was not at all surprised when Smith showed up, did not accept that message, and barged into Paine's office. Paine asked him good-naturedly whether he had had a talk with Taylor. Then Smith said,

Taylor told me that he has been telling you what to do for twenty years. I just called him a liar.

Now Paine had to lay it on the line. He told Smith bluntly that he was now in a grown-up world, by which he meant, quite simply, that Jefferson Smith was still a boy at heart and had never grown up himself. He spoke of checking one's ideals at the door. He then explained that, twenty years earlier, he had had the same decision to make as Smith now had, and Paine had made it: to compromise, so that he could continue to serve Colorado "in a hundred honest ways." Last of all, he begged Smith, for the sake of Paine's friendship with the late Clayton Smith, not to object in any manner to the Willett Creek Dam.

The trial

Smith did not accept Paine's advice—and Taylor made plain that not only did he have a contingency plan in place should Smith still balk, but that Paine must play a role in it. And so when, on the next day, Smith rose to object to Section Forty, Paine interrupted for recognition. The Vice-President asked Smith whether he would willingly yield the floor to Paine, and Smith said that he would. What Smith expected him to do, Paine could not fathom. Now Paine put forward the first part of Taylor's plan: to accuse Smith, on the floor of the Senate, of attempting to set of a scheme for profiteering from the National Boys' Camp. Specifically, he said that Smith had bought the very land described in his bill on the day following his appointment to the Senate, and was holding that land in order to realize a tremendous personal profit from a sale of that land to the Federal government. He ended by calling for an immediate hearing before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections (which in real life is probably the Senate Standing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, otherwise known as "The Senate Ethics Committee").

James Taylor's witnesses testified before that Committee and demonstrated to Paine that Taylor had briefed them well. Governor Hopper told of receiving a breathless Kenneth Allen who told of having sold the land to Smith. Allen confirmed the sale, and even introduced a contract guaranteeing to Allen a 50% share in any profit to be derived from the sale. When Smith denied signing any such contract, the Committee called three different graphologists, who by a "vote" of two to one declared that Smith's signatures on the contract and on the General Warranty Deed were genuine.

Finally, the Committee called Paine, who told the Committee his own rehearsed story: that when Smith had introduced his bill, Paine had pointed out that Willett Creek was already slated to have a dam built on it, that Smith had become terrifically angry and said, "Move the dam!", and that Paine had later learned of Smith's ownership interest in the land to be set aside for his Boys' Camp.

The Committee then called Smith to testify, and Smith, totally crestfallen, left the Committee room without saying a word.

That evening, James Taylor hosted another party at Paine's house. Paine sat aloof, finding nothing to celebrate.


But on the next day, Smith surprised Paine yet again. First was Smith's very decision to appear in the Senate; when he answered to his name in the roll call, every Senator started to murmur, until the Vice President rapped for silence and ordered the roll call to continue.

Then the chairman of the P&E Committee delivered his report, concluding with a resolution to expel Smith from the Senate. Then Senator Agnew rose to put the question to an immediate vote—but at that very instant, Smith also shouted for recognition. Agnew tried to insist on retaining the floor, saying that Smith could have nothing to say to the Senate anymore, but again the Vice-President silenced him, saying,

Senator Smith is still a member of this body, and as such has an equal claim on the attention of this chair.

Smith suggested that the VP was about to recognize him; the VP said that that was merely his impression. And then Saunders, from her position in the Friends of Senators gallery, shouted,

Let him speak!

Saunders shouldn't even be in Washington at all! Obviously she had come back—and what she hoped to gain by switching her loyalties to Smith, Paine could scarcely imagine. Her outburst caused the entire gallery, with the possible exceptions of the press and diplomatic sections, to erupt with sympathetic calls. Clearly angry, the Vice-President rapped for silence and lectured the galleries on matters of etiquette and his own authority. Nevertheless, for reasons that Paine would never fully elucidate, the Vice-President recognized Smith.

Smith began to speak, and Paine rose to interrupt him. And that's when Smith surprised Paine yet again: when the Vice-President asked whether Smith would yield to him, Smith refused! Smith now made clear that he had received extensive tutelage in the arcane rules of the Senate, and that he was prepared to hold the floor as long as he needed.

Paine asked whether Smith would yield for a question; Smith said that he would. Paine then made an impassioned speech, with his question at the end of it, saying that Smith was guilty as charged. Smith replied that he was guilty as framed, and then proceeded to tell the entire Senate about James Taylor and about the meeting in his hotel suite. Then Smith delivered his ultimatum: he would yield the floor only when the Senate agreed to postpone any further consideration of the Deficiency Bill for one week, during which time Smith would return to Colorado and gather witnesses and documentary evidence to prove his accusations.

Next Paine rose to a point of order; probably he was in a hurry, or he would have thought to rise to a point of personal privilege instead. His point was this: that Smith was now accusing Paine of colluding in criminal behavior. Smith denied the accusation, saying that he had never said that Paine himself had been at that meeting. That was when Paine told his second lie to the Senate: he said that he had been present, and that the purpose of the meeting was to urge Smith to resign from the Senate to avoid bringing disgrace on the State now that his "profiteering" scheme was exposed. Paine then delivered his peroration: that he refused to listen to Smith any longer, that he felt soiled to be in the same room with him, and that all his colleagues should follow him.

And so the entire Senate, with Paine in the lead, rose as one and left the chamber. But Smith was ready for that, too. As the Senators were filing out, Smith declared that he would speak to his State from where he stood, "even if it takes all winter," and, so saying, took out a vacuum bottle and several fresh fruits, vegetables, and rolls—as clear a demonstration as Paine needed that Smith intended to speak for a long time. And if Paine thought he could escape hearing Smith, he was disillusioned swiftly when the pages began shouting, "Quorum call!"

Credibility questions

When, an hour or so later, the Vice-President turned his gavel over to the President pro tempore and came to the cloakroom to talk to Paine, Agnew, and several other Senators, every man present knew that Smith was playing for keeps, and was obviously prepared to speak for a very long time. One Senator asked the VP whether he could remove Smith from the floor by any means, and the VP said no. He then said that much of what "that boy" was saying, made a lot of sense.

Paine reacted in outrage, and received with similar outrage the suggestion by Senator Agnew that the Senate strike Section Forty from the Deficiency Bill so that it could pass without it. Paine said that Smith had threatened the integrity of the P&E Committee and even of the Senate itself. Paine also challenged Senator Agnew and the Vice-President to tell him straight to his face that they would accept Smith's word over his, this after he had known most of the men in this cloakroom for twenty years.

Another Senator supported Paine and suggested maintaining a quorum in relays and seeing how long Smith could last. Probably no man present could have predicted that Smith would last for twenty-four hours.

Media manipulation

For all of Paine's bluster in confronting his fellow Senators, Paine was rapidly growing tired of the game. He took some time to see James Taylor, who was adamant in his determination to break Smith. Paine protested that he had used every rhetorical device at his command, but didn't "have the stomach for it anymore." Taylor replied sharply that if Smith succeeded in making anyone sympathize with him, Paine "might as well blow [his] brains out." He then ordered Paine to return to the Senate to carry on the fight, while ordering his lieutenants back home:

The chips are down. I want you to keep everything that Smith says, or any other pro-Smith stuff coming out of Washington, out of all our newspapers, and out of as many more as you can line up. And as for those broken-down opposition papers who won't play ball with us, I want you to hold them up for twenty-four hours...why, stall their deliveries! Push them off the street! I don't care how you do it, but you do it for twenty-four hours; that's all the time I need!


Eventually, this media manipulation had the desired result: fifty thousand telegrams flooded in to the Capitol telegraph office from Colorado, all of them demanding that Smith yield the floor. Paine had them piled into waste-paper baskets and bundled into sheaves, and after Smith had indeed been speaking for twenty-four hours, Paine asked whether Smith would yield for a question. Smith, probably grateful for the interruption, did so. Then Paine asked whether Smith would be willing to read those fifty thousand telegrams.

Smith stepped forward and started to read the telegrams. Paine could tell that Smith was upset at what he read, though Paine strongly suspected that every word in those telegrams was a lie.

Then Smith turned to Paine and spoke directly to him:

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes; Mr. Paine does. He said once that they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule: love thy neighbor. And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule, Mr. Paine. And I loved you for it, just as my father did. And you knew that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others! Yes, you even die for them—like a man we both knew, Mr. Paine.

Then Smith addressed the entire Senate:

You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked! And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place! Somebody'll listen to me...somebody...

And then Smith collapsed to the floor, bringing down one of the waste-paper baskets with him.

Paine jumped to his feet and stared at Smith's prostrate form. Had Smith suffered a heart attack? For Paine, the world came crashing down as he told himself that that was exactly what had happened: that Jefferson Smith, a man who had thought the world of him, had pushed himself one word too far, and then had died on the floor of the Senate.

James Taylor had said to him that if Smith succeeded, Paine might as well blow his brains out. Paine could see no way to disagree with those words. Smith was now a martyr. Surely the media manipulation could never last forever. Several Coloradans no doubt had out-of-State relatives; surely James Taylor would not dare attempt to cut the State off from telephonic communication!

He did not say a word. He walked out of the Senate chamber and into the cloakroom. There he took out a thirty-eight-calibre revolver (the weapon most likely resembling that depicted, however, indistinctly, in the film) and raised it to his temple.

Before he could fire even one round, Senator Agnew grappled with him. Two shots went wild, making holes in the walls of the cloakroom; a third shattered a nearby wall sconce, and with that shot, the gun fell from his hand. Agnew shouted at Paine, "What is the matter with you?" Paine replied at the top of his lungs,

I am not fit to be a Senator! I am not fit to live!

Then, seized with an uncontrollable urge, he tore his way free from Agnew and the other Senators attempting to restrain him, and burst into the chamber, still shouting:

Expel me, not him! Willett Dam is a fraud! It is a crime against the people who sent me here, and I committed it! Every word that that boy has said is the truth—every word about Taylor, and me and graft, and the rotten political corruption in my State! Every word of it is true! I am not fit for office! I am not fit for any place of honor or trust! Expel me! Expel me!

The Senate erupted into pandemonium. All the Senate's pages shouted and jumped up and down with glee. Paine could hear Saunders letting out an ear-splitting Rebel Yell from her spot in the gallery. The Vice-President tried several times to rap for order, and then gave up and sat back in his chair.


The rest of the story of Joseph Paine is not shown on film, and can only be inferred from observations of his behavior, and that of his friends and relatives and associates:

Eventually, even the excitement in the Senate died, and the Vice-President reminded Paine that if he had been offering his resignation, he had not offered it in a form that the chair could recognize. Paine then made his resignation official, effective immediately.

He learned later, to his immense and bittersweet relief, that Smith had not died, but had merely fainted. He would have been happy never to see or speak to James Taylor ever again. He called the Speaker of the Colorado Assembly and held himself available to give evidence against Taylor and any and all of his associates, before any forum that asked for it, including the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which was already preparing articles of impeachment against the Governor.

His daughter, Susan, was not nearly as understanding. She expressed extreme bitterness that she had been "that close" to being First Lady of the United States, that Jefferson Smith had ruined that for her, and that he, Joseph Paine, had also ruined that by his own failure of nerve. In the middle of this tirade, Paine received a message asking him to come back to the Capitol; Smith had regained consciousness and asked to see him. Against the rather strenuous protests of his daughter, Paine did return to the Capitol.

Smith's message for Paine was as plain as it was gracious: Smith harbored no ill will for Paine, because his real enemy was James Taylor, and that Paine had a chance to be the champion of lost causes that he once had been, and also a duty to tell the truth. That was probably all that stopped Paine from making a second suicide attempt, which probably would have succeeded.

Paine moved back to Jackson City and retired from public life. Susan refused to return with him, and for another year she remained as a fixture in the Washington cocktail circuit, though what she hoped to accomplish for herself, Paine could not imagine. But at length, a tearful Susan reappeared in Jackson City and apologized to her father—this after President Roosevelt made clear his decision to seek a third term, a decision that would have destroyed Paine's White House aspirations in any case, Smith or no Smith. Once that happened, Susan had faded to total irrelevance in Washington social circles, and had discovered, as her father had, that "friendships" having political advantage as their basis are no friendships at all.

Spoilers end here.


Paine is, as mentioned, an anti-hero, one who makes a life-altering decision to serve evil rather than good. In his case, that course results in unmitigated disaster. He acts for what he actually believes are good and laudable motives, failing utterly to understand that the ends cannot and never do justify the means.

Moral compromise

Compromised honor

Paine's first mistake was to compromise his honor in exchange for an easy campaign to enter the Senate. One cannot truly compromise honor; one must either uphold it, or violate it. Paine stood in violation, and those violations came to haunt him, when a young man entered his life and reminded him of the less-corrupt man he once had been.

Lack of fatherly discernment

Joseph Paine was also less than discerning as a father. A good father does not raise a daughter who thinks nothing of "turning her glamor" on a man for political gain. Yet that is what Susan Paine did at a key point in the story. Toying with a man's emotions was a trick she surely must have learned early in Washington; perhaps the loss of her mother allowed this ethical lapse to become manifest more quickly than it otherwise would have. That Jefferson Smith meant less than nothing to her was clearly evident when Smith had called on Paine at his house and then been unable to hold his hat in his hand while speaking to her (not to mention his knocking over a table on his way out), provoking her to nearly uncontrollable laughter. She would never ask such a man to be her escort if her father hadn't told her to—and that her father would give her such an instruction, after telling another man that she was "not available to take assignments like that from anybody," was further evidence of Joseph Paine's moral compromise.

Not reading bills

Paine's attitude toward the bills on which he voted is reflected in real life today, and has in fact become a national scandal. At one point he tells Jefferson Smith that he doesn't even understand half the bills that come before the Senate for debate. That line might have been one of several that caused real-life Senators and Representatives to walk out of the film in indignation halfway through its premiere showing in Washington in 1939. But today, many Senators and Representatives brazenly repeat that sentiment today.

This has provoked many expressions of voter outrage, the most recent and massive of which occurred on September 12, 2009, when more than a million citizens crowded into Washington and delivered a message almost to the Capitol steps:

Read the bill!