Thursday, April 1, 2010
Jefferson Smith: freed by filibuster
Americans accused of a crime or malfeasance are innocent until proven guilty, but inevitably the very fact that a person is being accused leaves a stain on their image. When Jefferson Smith, an independent Senator from the state of Capra, was charged with misusing his office for personal gain after only a matter of months in the position, the case against him seemed open and shut. It was only after a grueling test of endurance that Smith was vindicated, proving that he was not only innocent but a model for good government.
Smith was born in May of 1908 in Jackson City, Capra. After his graduation from high school, he worked in a printing office for some time before joining the Civilian Conservation Corps. The service was a perfect match for a man who grew up loving the outdoors, and he concluded his long days of planting trees and fish stocking to read books on nature and conservation. With the support of friends and investors, Smith launched two ventures. One, an organization called The Boy Rangers, provided nature workshops, camping outings, and other activities to introduce young men to the outdoors. The other, a magazine entitled Boy's Stuff, featured articles by Smith and contributions from his fast-growing group of readers. He became a hero to boys across the state, and his status was further solidified when he and a group of Boy Rangers fought tirelessly to snuff a wildfire around the town of Sweetwater. Smith and the group were camping nearby when the fire broke out, and they were honored for saving lives and property from the blaze. Smith was also a student of history, and enlightened his proteges with the inspiring speeches of the Founding Fathers and other renowned American figures.
Smith was perfectly happy with his lot in life when Republican Senator Sam Foley died in October of 1939. The decision of who would replace Foley fell to Republican Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper. The Governor was so nicknamed for his enthusiastic demeanor, and it was with a wide grin that he announced his choice for a replacement: Horace Miller. The crowd assembled for the press conference dissolved into an uproar. Miller was decried as a stooge of real estate tycoon and party boss Jim Taylor. Foley had always voted in line with Taylor's interests, and there was no reason to believe that Miller, a land speculator firmly in Taylor's pocket, would perform any differently. Abashed, and concerned for his own approval ratings, Hopper put the nomination on hold. Democrats promptly offered up their candidate, a former Progressive congressman named Henry Hill.
Hopper was used to falling in line with Taylor's wants, but the upheaval at the press conference made him terrified that putting Miller into office would send him out of office at the next election. By contrast, naming Hill would surely lose him Taylor's backing. At the urging of his children, Hopper chose a third path and surprised the state by choosing Smith. Both Democrats and Republicans shied away from criticizing Smith due to his popular status in Capra. Taylor, at first outraged that Hopper had defied him by naming a "squirrel chaser" to the seat, was mollified when he decided he could mold Smith into another cog in his machine. The state's other Senator, a Republican named Joseph Paine, happened to be Smith's deceased father's best friend. He was also firmly in Taylor's pocket. He promised Taylor that he would be able to manipulate Smith with ease.
Unaware of Paine's machinations, Smith caused the Senator a bit of discomfort at a dinner held following the nomination by recalling his father saying, "Joe Paine was the finest man he ever knew." It so happened that Smith's father, the publisher of a small newspaper, was murdered after his publication vociferously supported the rights of a single miner over a powerful syndicate. In his speech, Smith went on to declare, "I don't think I'm going to be much help to you down there in Washington, Senator. I'll do my best. And with all my might, I can promise you one thing: I'll do nothing to disgrace the office of United States Senator."
Upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., he was so awed by the monuments to the nation's leaders and government that he briefly went missing on a self-guided tour. The incident did nothing to improve his image in the minds of reporters. The capital's newspapers took the opportunity to mock Smith as a bumpkin unfit for the job, often printing little of the introductory interview aside from photos of him demonstrating his nature know-how with mocking headlines. The coverage was enough that Senator Pierre Barnes, a Louisiana Democrat, questioned whether Smith was fit for the job since his "astounding and shameless performance for the newspapers" brought his rank "down to the level of a sideshow entertainer."
The barb was the only one directed against Smith that day, and he was swiftly sworn in after a curt defense by Paine. Smith recalls that he confronted the members of the National Press Club (and took swings at quite a few of them), but that they also let him in on the unsettling fact that he would be perceived as little more than a second vote to whatever Paine decided. When he told Paine of this concern, his colleague encouraged him to propose a bill in support of his novel idea: a National Boys' Camp, basically an extension of the Rangers to allow young men to experience nature and learn about the nation's history. Smith followed through on the recommendation, to the laughter of Senators amused by Smith's nervousness but the terrific applause of Boy Rangers who had made it to appear in the galleries. He proposed that the government could make a loan for the project, to be repaid by the contributions of boys across the country who would donate whatever nickels or dimes they could. The bill also stipulated that the camp would be situated on the headwaters of Willet Creek.
Smith happened to be out of the Senate, being wooed by Paine's daughter, when the Senate took up discussion on a deficiency bill. A wide-ranging act to provide funding for public works projects, it also called for the creation of a dam at the exact spot where Smith hoped to build his camp. The bill itself had been heavily influenced by Taylor, who was hoping to award the construction bids to some of his closest political allies. Paine, who supported the bill, had reluctantly sent his daughter to seduce the greenhorn Senator away from his duties. It was only by the intervention of Clarissa Saunders, Smith's chief of staff, that Smith found out about the dupe.
Smith questioned Paine on why the dam wasn't going up in a place where the water would do more good. He also became more suspicious of Taylor, realizing that the appropriation for the dam may have been specifically to benefit the man. Thinking Paine could not be trusted to control Smith, Taylor came to Washington to meet with Smith one-on-one. Taylor bluntly told Smith that he could ensure his political destiny if he agreed with his agenda. It was a rather foolish move in light of the fact that Smith was in Washington for moral reasons.
Determined to expose the corruption, Smith asked to be heard on the $45 million appropriation for the Willet Creek dam in the deficiency bill. He yielded the floor after he was interrupted by Paine, who stunned the Senate by declaring that Smith was not worthy to hold office. Smith, Paine charged, had proposed to build the National Boys' Camp on land he had owned all along. Expecting to expose Taylor's graft, Smith suddenly found himself on the defensive, with Paine openly charging that he was using his office to "legalize an outrageous profit for himself out of the purchase of that land through the nickels and dimes scraped together by the boys of this country."
The matter went before the Committee on Privileges and Elections, where the evidence against Smith was compelling. Kenneth Allen, the owner of the land at Willet Creek, told members that Smith had held camping outings there for many years. He also said he had agreed to deed the land to Smith after the Senator promised he could flip it for a substantial profit and split the money with him. The committee also heard from Governor Hopper, the Register of Deeds of Jackson County, and Senator Paine. All testified that the purchase had taken place, or that Smith had some interest in the land. Paine even said that the placid Senator had raged at him to move the dam when told about the deficiency bill, and that he had found out about the land transfer afterward. A handwriting expert testified that the signatures on documents recording the transfer belonged to Smith. Irked, Smith simply walked out of the committee hearing without saying a word.
The committee promptly recommended the expulsion of Smith, and the next time the Senator spoke in the Senate chamber it was to defend himself against the charges. He managed to gain the floor by becoming the first Senator to speak on the motion, and didn't stop speaking on the issue until over a day later.
Encouraged by Saunders, both before the discussions and from the Senate galleries, Smith showed that he had become quite familiar with the rules of the chamber. He rebuffed attempts by Paine to regain the floor, and assailed the deficiency bill as a graft-riddled fraud. When Paine questioned why he could not have given a defense before the committee, Smith roared back, "I have no defense against forged papers!" He also related his account of Taylor making an offer to keep him in office, which Paine disputed by saying he and Taylor had simply urged Smith to resign in light of the evidence against him. Paine said he felt Smith was insinuating that he was involved in corrupt practices, and declared himself so offended of his "contemptible" counterpart that he walked out of the chamber. After Smith said he would not yield the floor unless both the deficiency bill and expulsion resolution were stayed to give him a week to return to Capra and work things out.
The other Senators showed their scorn by walking out as one body, but Smith promised he would keep up a filibuster. He also managed to get the Senators back into the chamber by calling for the sergeant-at-arms to compel a quorum. As Smith began his long monologue, he alternated between a defense against the corruption charges, criticism of the deficiency bill, and patriotic discussions of the nation's ideals.
The press in Jackson City and other areas of Capra was merciless. Backed by the Taylor machine, they accused Smith of holding up funding for numerous essential public works projects and other essential services to defend his own selfish interests. A spirited defense of Smith came from an unexpected source. The small printing press which produced Boys' Stuff was swiftly converted to a political organ, and it proclaimed Smith innocent. The periodical saw some distribution, but the Taylor forces resorted to reprehensible means to silence them. Public rallies in support of Smith were broken up by the police, and Boy Rangers holding shows of support for Smith were violently attacked. The outbursts, coupled with the later events in the Senate, ultimately led the Taylor machine to collapse in a hailstorm of public contempt.
In Washington, Smith's filibuster ground on past 23 hours. The other Senators, initially ignoring Smith and doing their best to whittle away the time, seemed to become more uncertain of his guilt as the exhausted Senator refused to give up the fight. "There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And if that's what the grown-ups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do," he said. "And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!"
However, Smith's faith in his home state seemed misplaced when Paine delivered thousands of telegrams to the Senate floor demanding that Smith yield. Visibly distraught as he took up and perused the papers, Smith nevertheless vowed to continue even in the face of the opposition, which he denounced as "lies." Instead, he collapsed soon after of exhaustion.
That may have marked the end of Smith's effort for good government but for what happened next. Several gunshots rang out in the hall outside the Senate. Soon after, Paine ran back into the chamber, shouting that Smith's accusations were true and demanding that he be expelled instead. Consumed with guilt over his complicity in the frame-up, Paine had tried to commit suicide but was restrained by other Senators in the hall. The Senate retired for the day, and the deficiency bill was promptly returned to committee for extensive revisions. The expulsion resolution was also taken up, and unanimously defeated. Paine, hospitalized for exhaustion, resigned the same day. He died in 1967.
Hopper promptly took credit for appointing a man as exemplary as Smith; he vowed to support other such men in Congress and rid the state of its Taylor machine. Though the declaration was clearly another example of Hopper swaying to whichever end public opinion favored, he made good on his promise and remained a steadfast Smith supporter. Smith pondered leaving the Senate to return to his work with the Rangers, but bowed to the Capra chorus for him to keep up the good work in Washington. It wasn't long before he married Saunders, the woman who had helped him carry out his famous feat. He easily won election to a six-year term when the seat was opened again in 1942, and remained in office until resigning in 1960 to take up the reigns at the National Boys' Camp he had helped to establish. While in office, he became an outspoken proponent for clean government and conservation. Smith died in Jackson City in July of 1997.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Boy Rangers" in the Jackson City Star on May 3 1939, "Smith Shuns Spotlight" in the Jackson City Star on Aug. 6 1939, "Happy Pick Assailed" in the Jackson City Star on Oct. 14 1939, "Democrats Propose Hill For Foley Seat" in the Washington Herald on Oct. 16 1939, "Ranger Named To Senate In Surprise Pick" in the Jackson City Star on Oct. 18 1939, "First 'Whiff' Of Washington" in the Washington Herald on Oct. 23 1939, "Smith Proposes National Boys' Camp" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 5 1939, "Paine Accuses Smith Of Land Fraud" in the Washington Herald on Nov. 12 1939, "Smith Walks Out Of Committee Hearing" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 14 1939, "Witnesses Testify Against Smith" in the New York Times on Nov. 14 1939, "Filibusters In The Senate" in the New York Times on Nov. 17 1939, "Smith Charges Graft, Seizes Floor" in the Pittsburgh Press on Nov. 17 1939, "Stubborn Smith Stalls Bill" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 17 1939, "Dramatic End To Smith Filibuster" in the New York Times on Nov. 18 1939, "Smith Charges Thrown Out" in the Washington Herald on Nov. 19 1939, "Paine Resigns" in the Jackson City Star on Nov. 19 1939, "Smith Elected In Landslide" in the New York Times on Nov. 8 1942, "Smith To Leave Senate, Lead Camp" in the Jackson City Star on Jun. 20 1960, "Jefferson Smith, Champion Of Clean Government, Dead at 89" in the New York Times on Jul. 3 1997, One Man by Jefferson Smith, The Lady on the Capitol Dome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Senator Smith by David McCullough, Ethics in the Senate by Michael Clifford, Jackson City Notables by John Herbert