More than sixty years after the largely forgotten 1950 senate contest between George Smathers and incumbent Claude Pepper, Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary asserts the historic significance of this election on both the national and state level. Historian James Clark takes the reader back to a bygone era of Florida politics in a dazzling effort that revivifies the past and illuminates the present. Though the average Floridian might be hard-pressed to identify either contender today, this senate election both influenced and was influenced by the changing political tides that anticipated McCarthyism and even the Culture Wars of the 1960s. At the heart of it all were two extremely compelling political figures.
Though it was Claude Pepper who will be remembered for his long and varied political career, the man who upset him in the 1950s was no less interesting a character. Close friends with two presidents, archrivals Kennedy and Nixon, he was personally acquainted with many more presidents in his life. Yet in 1968, at the ripe age of 55, Smathers chose not to run for re-election. What might George Smathers have accomplished for his constituents had he not given up on politics only a few years after the assassination of one of his closest friends, President John F. Kennedy?
Pepper’s career, on the other hand, demonstrates the sometimes mixed results of a stubbornness and dogged persistence. His appearance on the cover of Time twice nearly fifty years apart demonstrates the depth of that persistence. Pepper was a man with ideas who was not afraid to fight for them, sometimes at the expense of his popularity. Throughout his political career he demonstrated a penchant for making enemies and alienating constituents. Homely and brash, Pepper stood in stark contrast to the charismatic and attractive Smathers, whose looks earned him the nicknamed Gorgeous George. Pepper’s failed bid to steal the 1948 democratic presidential nomination from Truman enraged the sitting president. In response to the abortive effort, Truman personally recruited his friend Smathers to defeat Claude Pepper in the Florida senate election.
By all accounts, Smathers was a natural at politics. Where Pepper divided voters by taking firm positions on important issues like Civil Rights, Smathers managed to avoid taking a clear stance by deferring to States’ Rights. With the support of President Truman, he engineered a powerhouse campaign that unseated an incumbent whom few, least of all Pepper himself, thought could lose. Indeed, though Smathers was officially a democrat, his cutting edge campaign strategies provided the model for successful Goldwater and Nixon campaigns.
Smathers would later emerge as a powerful Florida business tycoon and one of the largest financial benefactors to his Alma Mater, The University of Florida. In 1991, the university renamed its library system in honor of Smathers following one of the largest donations it has ever received.
Though rapidly changing population demographics, fierce division over the question of Civil Rights, and the beginnings of the red scare all constitute the tumultuous socio-political background, most readers will find the real drama in the two compelling figures at the forefront of it all.
Clark sheds light on a political and historical reality that for many readers will be simultaneously familiar and totally alien. The events he recalls take place in a postwar South ruled by the Democratic Party and during a brief window of time in which the American stance toward Soviet Russia and communism was far from homogenous. Yet the election also ushered in modern campaign strategies and was one of the first major contests where a candidate’s communist sympathies were effectively wielded against him as a political weapon. Clark writes, “For the first time in its history, Florida became a focal point for political developments nationally.” Indeed, though Smathers was officially a democrat, his cutting edge campaign strategies provided the model for successful Goldwater and Nixon campaigns.
Clark’s work reflects a staggering amount of original research and engagement with hundreds of primary sources. At the center of this important story is the incumbent Claude Pepper, a man who few realize holds the rare honor of appearing on the cover of Time magazine twice. Though firmly grounded in the historical record, Clark presents a compelling psychological portrait of Pepper that will engage the reader as thoroughly as the details of the contest itself. Mr. Clark paints a picture of Pepper as a man alternately high-minded and petty, charismatic and bumbling, confident and deluded, finally leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. Surely Pepper, with his tendency toward inconsistency, would have enjoyed a much shorter political career in the age of YouTube.
Clark is a deft storyteller and his book does not want for illuminating anecdotes. To the unacquainted reader, certain passages could pass for alternative history; one such highlight is Pepper’s friendly visit to Stalin, or “Uncle Joe” only weeks after the war ends. Even more incredible from today’s vantage point was Pepper’s conviction that his soft stance on communism was the asset that would propel him to the presidency. As the most outspoken critic of what soon became the only acceptable attitude toward the Soviets, Pepper’s political career was inextricably linked to his stance on communism.
The historic election crystallizes similar struggles occurring in Florida and across the country. Business interests versus human interests.