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George Smathers

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

George Smathers
George Smathers 1963.jpg
Chair of the Senate Small Business Committee
In office
January 3, 1967 – January 3, 1969
Preceded byJohn Sparkman
Succeeded byAlan Bible
Chair of the Senate Aging Committee
In office
January 3, 1963 – January 3, 1967
Preceded byPatrick V. McNamara
Succeeded byHarrison A. Williams
Secretary of Senate Democratic Conference
In office
September 13, 1960 – January 3, 1967
LeaderLyndon B. Johnson
Mike Mansfield
Preceded byThomas Hennings
Succeeded byRobert Byrd
United States Senator
from Florida
In office
January 3, 1951 – January 3, 1969
Preceded byClaude Pepper
Succeeded byEdward Gurney
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 4th district
In office
January 3, 1947 – January 3, 1951
Preceded byPat Cannon
Succeeded byBill Lantaff
Personal details
George Armistead Smathers

(1913-11-14)November 14, 1913
Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedJanuary 20, 2007(2007-01-20) (aged 93)
Indian Creek, Florida, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Rosemary Townley (Divorced)
Carolyn Hyder
Children2, including Bruce
EducationUniversity of Florida (BA, LLB)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Marine Corps
Battles/warsWorld War II

George Armistead Smathers (November 14, 1913 – January 20, 2007) was an American lawyer and politician who represented the state of Florida in the United States Senate from 1951 until 1969 and in the United States House from 1947 to 1951, as a member of the Democratic Party.

Early life

Smathers was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the son of Lura Frances (Jones) and Benjamin Franklin Smathers.[1] His uncle, William H. Smathers, was a U.S. senator representing New Jersey. His family moved to Miami, Florida, in 1919, where he attended Miami High School. He then attended the University of Florida, where he earned his bachelor's degree and law degree. At Florida, he was president of his fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (Florida Upsilon chapter), captain of the Gators basketball team, president of the student body, and a member of Florida Blue Key; he was inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame.[2][3] After completing his LL.B. in 1938, Smathers returned to Miami, where he served as Assistant United States Attorney from 1940 to 1942. During World War II, he served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

Smathers was a childhood friend of Philip Graham, a fellow Floridian. Graham would later become the publisher of The Washington Post.

Political career

Smathers with John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and other congressional freshmen in 1947
Smathers with John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and other congressional freshmen in 1947

After the war, Smathers was elected to serve two terms in the United States House of Representatives, representing Florida's Fourth Congressional District from 1947 to 1951. He established a reputation for being a moderate except for his anti-communism.

Election to Senate

In 1950, Harry Truman called Smathers into a meeting at the White House and reportedly said, "I want you to do me a favor. I want you to beat that son-of-a-bitch Claude Pepper."[4] Pepper had been part of an unsuccessful 1948 campaign to "dump Truman" as the Democratic presidential nominee, and Smathers had been his manager and pupil.[citation needed] Smathers challenged the incumbent senator in the Democratic primary and won by a margin of over 60,000 votes. The race was marked by echoes of the Red Scare. Smathers repeatedly attacked Pepper for having Communist sympathies, pointing out his pro-civil rights platform and campaign for universal health care as well as his travels to the Soviet Union in 1945.[4] One scholar described his campaign against Pepper as "a nigger and red-baiting" campaign.[5] :347

Part of American political lore is the Smathers "redneck speech," which Smathers reportedly delivered to a poorly-educated audience. The comments were recorded in a small magazine, picked up in Time and elsewhere, and etched into the public's memories.[6] Time Magazine, during the campaign, claimed that Smathers said this:

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,[7] 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.[8]

The leading reporter who actually covered Smathers said he always gave the same humdrum speech. No Florida newspapers covering the campaign ever reported such remarks contemporaneously. Smathers offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he said it, and there were no takers before his death.[4][9]

In the 1958 election, both Smathers and longtime Pittsburgh mayor and soon-to-be Pennsylvania governor David L. Lawrence were implicated in but eventually exonerated of an attempt to try to influence the Federal Communications Commission's choice of a grantee for a television license for channel 4 in Pittsburgh.[10]

Smathers served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for six years. In April 1957, Senator Smathers appeared on the CBS game show What's My Line? as a panelist.

Stand on civil rights

The Civil Rights movement dominated southern politics during Smathers’ time in Congress. Smathers publicly opposed federal intervention in racial matters except to support voting rights. He also stressed the rule of law and the need for southern states to comply with any federal legislation. Privately, Smathers rejected many of the doctrines and tenets of white supremacy and believed that, over time, whites would change their views on race relations[11]. Smathers, though, fell into line with other southern senators by signing the 1956 Southern Manifesto, an attack on the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The signatories accused the Supreme Court of a "clear abuse of judicial power" and promised to use "all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation."[12] As Johnson’s lieutenant in the Senate, he helped craft the Senate version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He publicly predicted the defeat of the southern filibuster of the bill and voted for its passage in the Senate. The bill was then referred to a conference committee and Smathers voted against the final version.[13] After the chaos surrounding James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi in 1962, Smathers wrote “Federal law must be obeyed … so that force does not have to be used to bring compliance.”[14]

Smather’s contradictory positions on racial matters as a private individual and a Florida senator responsive to his conservative state were never more evident than after Johnson became president. Smathers urged Johnson to act quickly to pass national civil rights legislation, stating “…Now that you’re the President, I should think they would agree that the sooner we get a civil rights bill over with … the better the South would be, the better the North would be, the better everybody would be.” Smathers privately strategized with Johnson on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act telling Johnson, “I hope that he (Mansfield) has done his counting and that he has the votes.”[15][16]

Yet, as a Florida senator, when the bill came before the Senate, he voted against it. Likewise, Smathers supported federal involvement in upholding voting rights, believing that through the ballot African Americans would gain a seat at the table at all levels of local, state and federal government. In his words, “franchise and freedom are inseparable in America.”  However, while publicly praising the objectives of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he opposed the Senate version of the bill. Nonetheless he supported the final, amended voting rights measures, which enforced the voting rights provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while outlawing all literacy tests.[17]

Other work in the Senate

Smathers also helped pass bills to create Medicare, the Small Business Administration and Everglades National Park. He pushed for federal holidays to be moved to Mondays, essentially creating the modern three-day weekend, and he ardently supported the war in Vietnam.

In January 1964, Smathers released a statement calling for the creation of a "Freedom University of the Americas" with the purpose of instructing Latin Americans on combating communism in their countries. Financing was intended to come from the voluntary contributions of Americans from Americans willing to participate in the funding of a project intended to eradicate communism in the Western Hemisphere and Smathers said he would soon introduce legislation creating a special commission that President Johnson would have to appoint for the studying on how to form the proposed institution.[18]

Relationship with JFK

Smathers befriended John F. Kennedy, speaking on behalf of Kennedy at his wedding dinner rehearsal and reception.[19] During the 1960 presidential campaign, Smathers was a favorite son candidate for the Democratic nomination. He later managed Kennedy's campaign in the Southeast.

Journalist Roger Mudd recalls being the network representative in the press pool boat that tried to follow the presidential yacht with Smathers aboard in the early 1960s. "Smathers was probably John Kennedy's best friend in the U.S. Senate. Together or singly, they were wolves on the prowl, always able to find or attract gorgeous prey.... It was a joke, our pretending to be covering the president, bobbing around in the ocean, squinting through binoculars to find out who was coming and going but always having our view blocked by a Secret Service boat just as another long-legged Palm Beach beauty climbed aboard."[20]

It was leaked to the press that an emerging scandal involving the corrupt activities of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's aide Bobby Baker prompted Kennedy to give a private offer to Smathers of the second spot on the 1964 presidential ticket and a plan to drop Johnson as his running mate.[citation needed]

Retirement from politics

In 1968, Smathers declined to run for re-election to a fourth Senate term and retired from politics. He remained active in politics after his retirement from the Senate as a lobbyist.

Later life

Smathers Library, formerly known as Library East, at the University of Florida
Smathers Library, formerly known as Library East, at the University of Florida

Soon after leaving the Senate, Smathers divorced his first wife, heiress Rosemary Townley Smathers. In addition to lobbying, Smathers became a successful businessman, involved in a wide variety of interests, including automobile dealerships and orange groves. He sold his house on Key Biscayne to Richard Nixon, when Nixon was looking for a house in Florida.

The former senator became a rich man as both a lobbyist and businessman. Smathers made substantial gifts to the University of Florida. In 1991, Smathers gave a $24 million gift to the University of Florida library system, now known as the George A. Smathers Libraries.

Smathers lived in Indian Creek Island off Miami Beach and was father to two sons, John (born 1941) and Bruce Smathers (born 1943) (Florida Secretary of State 1975–78) from his marriage to Townley.

Smathers often attended "Church by the Sea", the United Church of Christ in Bal Harbour, Florida. His funeral was held here[21] after his death at age 93. Smathers's remains are located in Arlington National Cemetery. At the time of his death, he was the earliest-serving former congressman as well as the last one to have served during the 1940s.


Smathers was personally acquainted with every President of the United States to serve in the office in between, and including, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. He was particularly close to both of the 1960 major party presidential nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. All three became congressmen in 1947. All three had been young senators together in the early 1950s. Smathers was the only member of the wedding party at the 1953 Newport wedding of John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier who was a member of neither the Kennedy nor Bouvier families.

It was through Smathers that Richard Nixon met his best friend and longtime companion, "Bebe" Rebozo. Smathers arranged for Rebozo, his Key Biscayne neighbor, to take Nixon deep sea fishing. It was Smathers's former Key Biscayne home, which he eventually sold to Nixon, which became famous as the Florida White House during Nixon's presidential administration.

Smathers's connections in politics continued for many years. Bill Nelson, who was U.S. Senator from Florida from 2001 to 2019, was a summer intern in Smathers's office, 1961–1962.[22]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Kestenbaum, Lawrence. "The Political Graveyard: Smathers family of Miami, Florida".
  2. ^ F Club, Hall of Fame, Distinguished Letterwinners. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  3. ^ "Seven to be inducted into UF Hall of Fame," The Gainesville Sun, p. 8C (April 4, 1991). Retrieved July 24, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Fund, John, Political Journal "George Smathers, RIP", January 24, 2007.
  5. ^ Mohl, Raymond A. (1995). "Race Relarions in Miami since the 1920s". In Colburn, David R.; Landers, Jane L. (eds.). The African American Heritage of Florida. University Press of Florida. pp. 326–365. ISBN 0813013321.
  6. ^ The Associated Press (January 21, 2007). "George A. Smathers, 93, Dies; Former Senator From Florida" – via
  7. ^ Swint, Kerwin C., Mudslingers: The Twenty-five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 2006
  8. ^ "FLORIDA: Anything Goes". Time. 55 (16). April 17, 1950. Retrieved September 12, 2013.
  9. ^ "State: A born winner, if not a native Floridian".
  10. ^ "Smathers Exonerated in Pittsburgh TV Case". St. Petersburg Times. September 26, 1958. Retrieved September 12, 2013.
  11. ^ Crispell, Brian Lewis. (1999). Testing the limits : George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-2103-6. OCLC 40230656.
  12. ^ Patterson, James T. (1996). Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 398. ISBN 019507680X.
  13. ^ Crispell (1999). Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America. p. 125.
  14. ^ Crispell (1999). Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America. p. 177.
  15. ^ Crispell (1999). Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America. p. 185.
  16. ^ LBJ Presidential Library, Volume Seven, June 1, 1964 – June 22, 1964, p. 13.
  17. ^ Crispell (1999). Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America. pp. 187–188.
  18. ^ "Smathers Urges Freedom University of the Americas". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. January 19, 1964.
  19. ^ Associated Press, "George A. Smathers, 93; Former Florida Senator," The Washington Post (January 21, 2007). Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  20. ^ Mudd, Roger (2008). The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the glory days of television news. New York, New York: PublicAffairs, p. 95. ISBN 978-1-58648-576-4
  21. ^ "United Church of Christ". Archived from the original on June 7, 2011.
  22. ^ Palm Beach Post, October 22, 2006.
  23. ^ "What's My Line? 28 Apr 1957". YouTube. CBS Television. Retrieved April 15, 2015.


  • Crispell, Brian Lewis, Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia (1999). ISBN 0-8203-2103-6.

External links

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Pat Cannon
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 4th congressional district

Succeeded by
Bill Lantaff
Party political offices
Preceded by
Claude Pepper
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Florida
(Class 3)

1950, 1956, 1962
Succeeded by
LeRoy Collins
Preceded by
Thomas Hennings
Secretary of Senate Democratic Conference
Succeeded by
Robert Byrd
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Claude Pepper
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Florida
Served alongside: Spessard Holland
Succeeded by
Edward Gurney
Preceded by
Patrick V. McNamara
Chair of the Senate Aging Committee
Succeeded by
Harrison A. Williams
Preceded by
John Sparkman
Chair of the Senate Small Business Committee
Succeeded by
Alan Bible
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Russell B. Long
Most Senior Living U.S. Senator
Sitting or Former

Succeeded by
Robert Byrd
This page was last edited on 21 September 2020, at 19:43
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