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Book examines legendary Florida Senate race

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 11:08 AM

"Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper's Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary," by James C. Clark (University Press of Florida, $29.95)

Older Floridians will remember, perhaps imperfectly, the fierce Democratic primary campaign of 1950 that pitted the homely and controversial incumbent, U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper, against a handsome young upstart, George Smathers.

Back then, Florida's journalists routinely declared that victory in a Democratic primary was "tantamount to election" because there was no meaningful Republican Party. Twenty years later, Florida would elect the first GOP governor since Reconstruction, the late Claude Kirk, and since then the party has been in the ascendancy.

But in 1950, that was inconceivable. Today, other aspects of the state's political culture back then are equally inconceivable. For example: Pepper proudly proclaimed himself a liberal, although he had a dreadful record on civil rights and, like nearly all Southern politicians of the day, earnestly promoted the concept of white supremacy

But it wasn't Pepper's stand on racial issues that made him vulnerable. It was that, more than almost any other American political figure of his time, he consistently expressed his support for the Soviet Union and described Joseph Stalin as a "great man."

Red-baiting was about to become widespread in America, and it was already visible in the Pepper-Smathers contest. Clark examines not only what amounted to Pepper's self-destruction, but also the way campaigns were conducted on a personal level in the days before television became a factor.

Pepper, a relentless supporter of FDR's New Deal and other liberal causes (civil rights excepted), was a national figure by the time the primary rolled around. He dreamed of being president.

It didn't hurt Smathers that he was supported by Florida's richest man, Ed Ball, a longtime foe of Pepper's. That Ball was a man saddled with a dubious reputation — he accumulated his wealth (and political power) by means that were not always honorable — was of no concern to Smathers or, apparently, to the voters, who probably knew little about him anyway.

In the end, Pepper's own words and deeds doomed his campaign. Yet Floridians were ultimately well served by Pepper's later service in the House of Representatives. He was a better politician than his 1950 campaign would suggest.


Al Hutchison of Citrus County is a freelance writer.

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