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A born winner, if not a native Floridian

George Smathers never lost an election, but his legacy remains attached to a campaign quote he never said.

Published November 29, 2003

MIAMI - To entertain a visitor, George Smathers imitates his old political nemesis, Claude Pepper.

He narrows his eyes into a beady squint, arches a clenched fist toward the ceiling and transports himself back to 1950, when the two of them duked it out in an infamous U.S. Senate primary.

Pepper always would remind crowds that Smathers wasn't born in Florida but had moved here as a boy. Now Smathers replays Pepper's stump speech, right down to its raspy twang and drawn-out cadence:

"How . . . can . . . you . . . vote . . . for . . . someone . . . from . . . NEW JERSEY?"

Smathers drops his arm and chuckles. "You know, I always liked old Claude."

Somewhere, Florida's liberals of yore are spinning in their graves.

They never forgave Smathers for thrashing Pepper. They called Smathers an opportunist and a scurrilous red-baiter. History books credited him - incorrectly - with one of the cleverest smears in American politics.

But Smathers is beyond that now. He turned 90 this month; 35 years have passed since he hobnobbed with presidents and helped shape a nation's destiny. Forty years have passed since Dallas and his old friend's assassination.

Political opponents dubbed him Gorgeous George, a smirking reference to his tailored suits and bedroom eyes. Though his mind sometimes wanders, passing years have been kind. His voice remains clear, his handshake vigorous.

He has money to burn, grandchildren to enjoy and daily tete-a-tetes with lunchtime cronies.

"I have no major regrets," he said. "Don't look at the downside of everything that comes along. It helps life move along so much smoother and nicer."

Easy win into House and an introduction to JFK

George Armistead Smathers never lost an election.

He starred on the playing fields of Miami High and the Blue Key corridors of the University of Florida, where he ran the student body. They called him "Smooch" for his easy ways with visiting Florida State coeds.

His roommate was Phil Graham, who would marry his way into running the Washington Post.

Smathers was wired into both U.S. senators from Florida. One had a son at UF. The other was Claude Pepper, and Smathers had honchoed his Gainesville campaign in 1938.

So at 25 and fresh out of law school, Smathers had no trouble wrangling an appointment as a federal prosecutor from Dade County. He made a quick splash by jailing "white slavers," people who brought young women across state lines for "immoral purposes."

He was articulate, hard working and ambitious. World War II solidified his political bona fides by taking him to the South Pacific and aerial combat as a Marine. In the 1946 Democratic primary, he swamped a four-term congressman named Pat Cannon, who had an unfortunate habit of skipping votes on the House floor. Back then, the primary was all that mattered in Florida. Lovebugs enjoyed better status than Republicans.

Smathers, 33, shows up in a 1947 photograph of freshmen members of the House of Representatives. To his left are an introspective Californian named Nixon and a skinny Bostonian named Kennedy.

"Of the fellows least likely to be president, you'd have to vote Jack No. 1," Smathers later told a Senate historian. "He only weighed about 125 pounds, and he had this bad back and he had another illness that we didn't know about at the time, but he didn't look well."

Smathers and John F. Kennedy had adjoining offices and became fast friends. They both had hard-driving fathers who pushed them into politics. They both loved golf and after-hours carousing. Only Smathers and a few others knew of JFK's near-constant pain. On roll-call votes, Kennedy would lean on Smathers' shoulder as they walked to the House chamber. Other times, Smathers would help Kennedy put on shoes and socks.

Kennedy "was the most delightful gentleman . . . I was ever with," Smathers said this month. "He had a sense of humor. Smart as he could be."

But he never carried money.

"We'd go to dinner somewhere and the waiter would put the check in front of him. He'd look around and look around and drop it on the floor. Then he'd hand it to me under the table and say, "George take care of this for me.' "

The Cold War and a wrongly attributed quote

A New Deal war horse, Sen. Claude Pepper could stir the masses during the Depression with his silver-tongued populism. By 1950, however, the economy was rebounding and a crusty guy from Missouri had replaced Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

Pepper had lobbied to keep Harry Truman off the presidential ticket in 1944 and 1948. Truman, a machine pol from Kansas City, didn't lack for memory.

As Smathers tells it, Truman called him to the White House and said, "George, I want you to do me a favor . . . I want you to beat that (expletive) Claude Pepper."

Smathers had a South Florida base and UF connections throughout the state. He also had an issue: the Red Menace.

As much as any politician, Pepper had reacted slowly to geopolitical shifts that followed World War II. The Soviet Union, once an ally, had taken over Eastern Europe and stolen the United States' atomic bomb secrets. While Truman expanded the military and created NATO, Pepper urged cooperation. He praised Joseph Stalin and appeared at peace rallies with American Communists.

Smathers hammered him.

"The people of our state will no longer tolerate advocates of treason," Smathers said in a campaign speech. "The outcome can truly determine whether our homes will be destroyed, whether our children will be torn from their mothers, trained as conspirators and turned against their parents, their home and their church."

Such were the beginnings of Cold War politics. Out in California, Richard Nixon won a Senate seat by labeling his opponent "pink down to her underwear."

Pepper had naively made himself vulnerable, and Smathers exploited it. What he didn't do was author that delicious little smear.

According to political legend, Smathers would address North Florida Crackers so uneducated they couldn't understand big words. Though no on-site journalist ever reported these legendary remarks, Time magazine published them as a political "yarn":

"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, 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."

Over the years, biographies and historical texts accepted the Time quote as gospel, sometimes adding more lines like "Pepper matriculated with coeds."

Smathers offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he said it, with no takers. Now he shakes his head and acknowledges the falsehood as part of his legacy.

Unfortunately, Nixon wasn't much of a partier

As a representative, Smathers introduced the bill that created Everglades National Park. He moved federal holidays to Monday, so tourists could take three-day trips to Florida. He harped on economic aid to Latin America so often colleagues called him "the Senator from Latin America."

But he made his mark with personality, not legislation. In the clubby Senate, he made friends with almost everyone - diehard segregationists, crusading liberals, even Republicans.

Smathers once arranged a fishing trip off Miami for Nixon with an old childhood buddy, Bebe Rebozo. Nixon wore a suit and never seemed to unwind.

"I liked Nixon fine, but Nixon was not a partier" Smathers recalled this month. "He didn't drink, he didn't play cards and he didn't chase women. Kennedy was a lot of fun, always. He had something going on. But not Nixon."

The fishing trip did yield fruit. After Nixon became president, he asked to buy Smathers' Key Biscayne retirement home, next-door to Rebozo. It became the Florida White House and Rebozo's financial dealings later played a minor role in the Watergate scandal.

Smathers lacked seniority for a powerful committee chairmanship. But he quickly rose to the No. 3 party leadership post under Lyndon Johnson, the Senate's Democratic mastermind. Smathers' congeniality provided an effective counterpoint to Johnson's blunt arm-twisting, particularly on civil rights.

Smathers was "a bridge between the South and North," said Tarpon Springs resident Jerald Blizen, who covered Smathers as the St. Petersburg Times' Washington correspondent before becoming Smathers' press secretary. "Johnson used him to convince the Southerners to come around."

Back in the '50s and early '60s, successful statewide politicians never looked too progressive on race. When the Orlando Sentinel published a 1950 photograph of Claude Pepper shaking hands with a black voter, the venerable liberal responded, "I don't believe in social equality, and they know it."

Smathers was no exception. When Martin Luther King was jailed in St. Augustine, Smathers offered to pay King's bail if he would leave the state. He opposed Thurgood Marshall for the U.S. Supreme Court and the landmark civil rights act of 1964.

But behind the scenes, he quietly supported federal voting rights bills, giving political cover to other Southerners to inch forward.

An assassination and coming to terms with foes

For any American over 50, November is a month for remembering. Smathers, too. He was on a plane from Washington to Florida when the news hit.

"The pilot came back and said he had just heard that Kennedy was shot," Smathers said. "It was doubtful whether or not he would live. The pilot said, "Would you like to sit up front with the co-pilot and me and listen as to what's happening?' "

Smathers and Kennedy traveled Europe together. When Kennedy visited the family compound at Palm Beach, Smathers usually showed up, golf club in hand.

Suddenly, he was squeezed into a cockpit, absorbing his friend's death.

When his term expired in 1968, Smathers quit the Senate and set up a lucrative Washington lobbying practice. Perks of his former office gave him access to the Senate floor, parking garage and dining room. Clients "would go back and say, "That Smathers is really something. He knows everybody over there.' " Smathers said. "I could send them a big bill, and hell, they'd be happy to pay it."

Real estate deals, orange groves, banks and a car dealership stoked his wealth. He has donated more than $30-million to the University of Florida and University of Miami, with plenty left over for a home on a private Miami island and another in the cool mountains of North Carolina.

Son John works for the Department of the Interior. Son Bruce, once Florida's secretary of state, tends to investments in Jacksonville. Second wife, Carolyn, stays mostly in North Carolina. Beloved Scottish terrier Chip has died, but Drive and Putt wag on.

Along the way, Smathers even made peace of sorts with Claude Pepper.

In 1964, Pepper won a seat in Congress from Dade County and became an icon of programs for seniors. Smathers donated to Pepper's campaigns. Asked about the contributions 20 years ago, when he was 70, Smathers said, "I guess I'm getting old enough to where I kind of feel like he may speak for me."

- Information for this report came from Times files, Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America (University of Georgia Press, 1999), Claude Pepper & Ed Ball (University of Florida Press, 2000), and Gothic Politics in the Deep South (Grossman, 1968).

[Last modified November 29, 2003, 01:46:33]

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