I now relate a passionate political ménage à trois, a story loyalty, intrigue and infidelity, a tale so legendary that sixty years later the broken hearts are still tender. It is the story of three men - one who loved only money, a second who loved only himself, and a third who loved the man he might have been. Two of these men came from poverty and one was born to wealth. All three died wealthy, but only one was so honored in death that he lay in state for two days under the rotunda dome of the U.S. Capital. And he was the loser.
The paramour of these three suitors was the national appendage that is Florida. It became a state in 1845 and then again in 1868. But it was always two states, the northern third, familiarly tied to the insular deep South, and the southern third, more worldly, more latin. In 1950 Florida was a Democratic citadel, with one million registered Democrats to 69,000 Republicans, making victory in the Democratic primary tantamount to election. But there was change on the wind and it began in the string of small coastal towns, from Port St. Luicie to Palm Coast, where the two Florida's blended, each rudely intruding upon the politics of the other.
Politics, to Edward Gresham Bell (above). was merely a means to an end. Said Edward, “"I suppose some people might call me tight with a dollar.” Not even Midas had a purer love of money than Edward. He had sought gold in Alaska, but struck it in 1921 when his sister, Jessie, became the third wife of heir Alfred DuPont. DuPont took on Edward as an assistant and together they built a fortune in Florida real-estate, lumber, and banking. Alfred died in 1935 leaving behind a $26 million trust fund. His widow Jessie became a philanthropist, but despite that, within three years, Edward had tripled the value of the trust.
Edward was ruthless, a “hard-nosed conservative financier", who began each evening meal with a glass of Jack Daniels and the toast, “Confusion to our enemies!”. He had no personal life, only a business existence. He tried marriage once, but reduced it a multi-clause contract which even defined “nagging”. After ten years Edward bought his wife out for $250,000. He once said , "When I go across the creek, it will be because I can't help myself or can't work any longer." By 1950 the 68 year old Edward was a still working, still a political king maker. And he had begun looking for new king.
The old king had been a troublesome liberal, Claude Denson Pepper. He was a fifty year old horse-faced, glad-hander who admitted, “I was a New Dealer before there was a New Deal. And I remained one when the ideology came under bitter attack.” Born to Alabama sharecroppers, Pepper's ambition got him into Harvard Law School. Moving to Florida in the twenties, in 1936 Claude won a U.S. Senate seat in a special election. He was staunch defender of F.D.R, and a good friend of Roosevelt's Vice President, the 'uber' liberal, Henry Wallace.
But Roosevelt dumped Wallace in 1944, and Pepper was unhappy with his replacement, Harry Truman. In the 1948 Democratic convention, Pepper tried to form an “Anybody but Truman” uprising, but it never caught fire. And then, to everyone's surprise, Truman beat Dewey in November. And now Truman was also looking for somebody, anybody, to run against Claude Pepper.
George Armistead Smather earned the nickname 'Smooch' at the University of Florida because of his womanizing. During the late 1930's Senator Pepper had helped him get an appointment as an assistant U.S. attorney. But coming home from the Marine Corps in 1945, the handsome 37 year old lawyer had won his own seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the fourth district of Florida. There he befriended the equally young and handsome Navy veteran, Jack Kennedy.
In 1949 President Truman summoned the two term congressman to the White House, where he asked George for a favor. “I want you to beat that son-of-a-bitch Claude Pepper.” To hear George tell it, he tried to warn Claude. “I went to his office one day and said, "Claude, I'm getting a lot of encouragement to run against you. Everybody in Florida thinks you're off your rocker with this Joe Stalin bit." He said, "Oh, no, no I'm not. I'm not worried about it anyway.” At least that's the way George told it.
The “Stalin bit” was a 1946 speech Claude had given to a pro-Russian group, in which he said that nowhere in the world were “minorities given more freedom, recognition and respect than in the Soviet Union.” In a later speech Claude said Stalin was “a man we can work with” Such inane pandering had earned Claude the title “Red Pepper”. And that was just the opening Edward Bell was looking for. Bell was not worried about the Red menace, so much as the blue collar menace. He was determined to stop the New Deal labor movement at the Florida boarder. So he opened his purse strings to support George Smathers.
Speaking in Orlando at a 12 January rally George opened the 1950 primary campaign by warning the 3,000 supporters of “a deliberate conspiracy, hatched by the labor overlords in Washington. Working with them, and lending their evil, unsavory arts, are communist agitators....Negro organizers who have learned how easy it is to inflame the hates and prejudices of their own race...a mixed mob of political saboteurs who has invaded Florida.” And he ask if his listeners “liked the idea of Florida elections being controlled by the negro vote, by labor bosses and communist sympathizers....”. That's what George actually said.
What George did not say was what Time magazine claimed he said. "Why, J. Edgar Hoover, the whole FBI, and every member of Congress knows that Claude Pepper is - 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.” Some reports even added the charge that “Pepper matriculated with coeds.”
It was a political joke, and as old as the hills, far older even than Edward Bell. But it wasn't true and it masked the vile stump speech that George Smathers (above) actually used. After comparing intergration and labor unions to treason, George would build to his crescendo. "The outcome (of this election) 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.”
Meanwhile, in his slow, exgaserated southern drawl, Claude Pepper would ask, “How . . . can . . . you . . . vote . . . for . . . someone . . . from . . . NEW JERSEY?” The Sumter County Times editorialized that “the boys in overhauls are pretty much his (Pepper's) boys, and an overhaul vote counts as much as the ballot of a DuPont.” The working class supported Claude because he supported universal health care, but that earned the enmity of the American Medical Association. And Pepper did not support integration. He complained Smathers was telling “white people I am too friendly with the Negroes and he is telling the Negro I have betrayed him.” He accused Smathers of misleading campaign literature, spreading race and religious prejudice.
It was the last pre-television campaign in Florida, when Claude could joke, "If it had been a Hollywood contest, I wouldn’t have put up a qualifying fee”. And he was right. It was the traditional politics of rally's with barbacues, fish frys, hush puppies and square dances. But in the end, it was also revolutionary.
The results were a landslide. George Smathers took 55% of the vote, winning by 64, 771 votes. And his win had not come from the “crackers” of north and west Florida. Claude Pepper had carried those counties. What threw the election to Smathers were voters along the east coast, blue collar workers who cast their lots with the manager class, who they expected to shortly join, who were terrified that "Negroes" would take their jobs. Ran the banner headline in one Florida east coast newspaper, "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow . . . We Have Won....And Staved Off Socialism.” It even appeared that more than a few Republicans had registered as Democrats just to defeat Claude “Red” Pepper. And it was the very first whisper of the shift to a solid Republican hold in the South.
When Ed Bell died in 1981 the duPont Trust he ran was worth $2 billion. By 2006 it was was valued at $4.5 billion. George Smathers served on the Warren Commission, investigating the murder of this friend, President Jack Kennedy. Even after, he remained a Kennedy supporter. In 1968, one of his ex-secretaries, Mary Jo Kopechne, was killed in an accident while riding in an automobile driven by Ted Kennedy. By then George had decided not to run for re-election.. George and his wife divorced, and he sold his Key Biscayne home to Richard Nixon. He then became a successful lobbyist and car dealer. When he died in 2007 'Smooch” left $24 million to the University of Florida.
Ten years after his Senate defeat Claude Pepper won a seat in the House of representatives, where he established a strong anti-communist reputation. Winning re-election every two years, in 1977 he became chairman of the Select Committee on Aging, collaborating with Alan Greenspan on a plan that saved Social Security. He joked that he and Speaker Tip O'Neal were the only Democrats who drove Ronald Reagan crazy. When he died on 30 May, 1989, his coffin lay in state under the Capital dome for two days.
Today, in Federal elections, Florida is again two states, and firmly in the fold of neither political party.
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