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Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The long-forgotten George A. Smathers

In reflecting the other day on the ttactics being used by the Tories to discredit Keir Starmer I was motvated to look up a notorious speech that was allegedly delivered in a Florida primary contest in 1950 by George A. Smathers.

As Florida Today says, personal attacks and name calling have a long tradition in American political campaigns and when polled, people overwhelmingly say they do not approve of such tactics, yet election results demonstrate that such negative campaigning is frequently successful.

They add that when modern political commentators discuss the divisiveness of contemporary American politics, they often refer to Florida’s 1950 Democratic Primary as an example of a particularly contentious campaign.

In that contest, George Smathers defeated Claude Pepper for Florida’s seat in the United States Senate, and legend has it that he did so with a cynical speech aimed at unsophisticated Florida voters. However, despite the speech being quoted in the April 17, 1950, edition of Time magazine, Smathers denies ever having delivered it. This is the key passage:

“Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”

The version I vaguely remember was a bit longer and had something about Pepper's sister matriculating at college before she became a known thespian, but you get the drift. Florida Today takes up the story:

“The idea was north Florida voters weren’t very bright, and if you used big words, you could confuse them and make the opponent sound terrible, simply by saying truthful things,” said James C. Clark, author of the book “Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary.”

“Clearly this speech by Smathers was never given,” Clark said. “Smathers offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the speech had been given. It’s amazing that Smathers served three terms in the Senate, he was close to Kennedy, he was close to Nixon, did a lot in Latin American affairs, and what he’s best remembered for is a speech he never gave.”

Unfortunately, this piece of political satire is sometimes still quoted as an actual example of campaign tactics in Florida.

Claude Pepper is today affectionately remembered as a champion of senior citizens, but in the decade leading up to the 1950 Democratic Primary, he was a controversial figure.

“Before World War II, he was the leading advocate for a military buildup in this country,” said Clark. “He told everyone who would listen that Hitler was going to be a problem for us. For that he was mocked. People on the Senate floor mocked him, called him ridiculous.”

History proved Pepper to be correct about America’s participation in World War II, but not about our developing relationship with the Soviet Union.

“After the war, he thought that the coming issue would be relations with Russia, but this time he guessed wrong,” said Clark. “He bet that we would have good relations with Russia, and if he championed that, he would come out with a better reputation, just as he had with Hitler. Relations with Russia did not get better, they got far worse.”

Pepper visited Josef Stalin, and his stance on communism became a key issue in the 1950 campaign.

President Harry S. Truman and Pepper were political adversaries, and Truman personally asked Smathers to defeat Pepper in the senate race. The campaign was contentious, even though all three men were Democrats.

Smathers served in the United States Senate from 1951 to 1969 but is still remembered for a speech he never gave. 

Although he lost the Senate seat he had held since 1936, Pepper went on to serve Florida in the United States House of Representatives from 1963 until his death in 1989.

Update: The New York Times has more:

But the history of the remark attributed to Mr. Smathers is perhaps most interesting as a case study in how real and fictional events, stump speeches and reporters' gossip, ideology and dirty tricks blend together to form the sustaining mythology of this town's political community.

'It was a campaign of vicious distortion,'' Mr. Pepper said, ''calling me 'Red Pepper,' calling me a Communist. That fitted right in, you see, with the McCarthyism that was sweeping the country.'

But Mr. Smathers insisted that not all the tough talk had come from him. For example, Mr. Pepper liked to wave his Alabama birth certificate at all-white audiences and remind them that Mr. Smathers was born in New Jersey. No son of the South, Mr. Pepper said in replying charges that he was pro-black, needed instruction from a Northerner on race.

Such theatrics drew national press attention, and it was apparently a mixture of journalistic interest and the candidates' torrid rhetorical exchanges that gave rise to the famous remark.

According to Mr. Smathers, newspaper reporters, chiefly William H. Lawrence of The New York Times, began inventing double-talk quotations and swapping them over drinks. Mr. Smathers said these wisecracks became the running joke of the campaign and that Mr. Lawrence kept him posted on the latest version.

William Fokes, a Tallahassee lawyer who was Mr. Pepper's administrative assistant at the time, also confirmed that reporters were passing around these jokes. In interviews, people from both camps agreed that there was no record that Mr. Smathers used any of the joke lines on the stump.

But there is evidence that once the jokes got started, the Smathers organization helped spread them. The idea was not to mislead ignorant voters with fancy words but to undermine respect for Mr. Pepper by making him an object of ridicule in the conservative Panhandle of northern Florida, recalled Daniel T. Crisp, a Jacksonville public relations man who worked in Mr. Smathers's behalf.

'It was actively used because it was funny,'' said Mr. Crisp. Two years before the election, he recalled, he was hired by Edward Ball, manager of the DuPont interests in Florida, to rally the conservative vote against Mr. Pepper. The jokes about celibacy and matriculation were part of an arsenal of anti-Pepper humor. 

'There were several things,'' Mr. Crisp said. ''One was a little card passed from one businessman to another, saying: 'Florida's fastest growing industry: Canning Pepper.'

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