This week’s Friday funny, put together by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, takes a look at an American political legend of an extraordinary smear campaign that allegedly took place during the Democrat primary elections for US Senate in Florida in 1950
George Smathers (1913-2007) travelled around the northern parts of the state, where in rural areas he would address audiences of poorly-educated ‘Crackers’, telling them that his opponent, the incumbent Claude Pepper (1900-1989) was not to be trusted:
“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.”
The Democrat primary was hotly contested because, at this time, the Republicans were not well established in Florida. Whoever took the Democrat nomination would almost certainly be elected.
Smathers and Pepper were indeed two very different types of Democrat; Pepper was a liberal who had travelled to the USSR in 1945 and had said Stalin was “a man Americans could trust”. Smathers attacked Pepper for his supposed communist sympathies and his support for the growing civil rights movement. Smathers won by a wide margin.
But Smathers had never tried to fool the voters with big words. This story seems to have originated as a sketch in Time magazine, which was then picked up by newspaper columnists in northern states eager to poke fun at the ignorant southerners. The story was even embellished down the years with additions such as “Pepper matriculated with coeds” (i.e. female students).
Smathers always denied making the speech and in later life offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who could prove he said anything of the kind.