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George Armistead Smathers

In office
January 3, 1951 – January 3, 1969
Preceded by Claude Pepper
Succeeded by Edward J. Gurney

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 4th district
In office
January 3, 1947 – January 3, 1951
Preceded by Pat Cannon
Succeeded by William C. Lantaff

In office
January 3, 1967 – January 3, 1969
Preceded by John J. Sparkman
Succeeded by Alan Bible

Born November 14, 1913
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died January 20, 2007 (aged 93)
Indian Creek, Florida
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) (1) Rosemary Townley (div.)
(2) Carolyn Hyder
Children John Smathers
Bruce Smathers
Alma mater University of Florida
Profession Lawyer
Military service
Service/branch United States Marine Corps
Battles/wars World War II

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


Early life

Smathers was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey (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 for his undergraduate degree and law school education. At Florida, he was president of his fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (Florida Upsilon chapter), captain of the basketball team, president of the student body, and a member of Florida Blue Key; he was later named to the University of Florida Hall of Fame. 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 (1915–1963) would later become Publisher of The Washington Post.

Political career

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 who was resolutely anti-communist.

Election to Senate

In 1950 President 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."[1] Pepper had been part of an unsuccessful 1948 campaign to "dump Truman" as the Democratic presidential nominee, and George Smathers had been his manager and pupil.[citation needed] Smathers challenged the incumbent United States Senator Claude Pepper 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 where, after meeting Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, declared he was "a man Americans could trust."[1]

However, the race is most famous for a speech Smathers never gave.[2] A reporter made up a hoax that Smathers gave a speech to a rural audience using fancy words to create the implication that Pepper was sinister. Smathers reportedly had said, "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,"[3] While it is sometimes said that Time magazine reported these items, the magazine actually referred to the quote as a "yarn."[4] The leading reporter who actually covered Smathers said he always gave the same hum-drum 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.[1][5]

Smathers served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for six years.

Stand on civil rights

Like other Southerners, Smathers voted in favor of his white segregationist constituency and denounced the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education rulings as a "clear abuse of judicial power." In 1956, Smathers signed the Southern Manifesto condemning the Supreme Court decision to desegregate the public school system. According to his obituary prepared by the Associated Press, Smathers once agreed to pay the bail of the jailed civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, but only if King agreed to leave the state of Florida.

In the Senate, Smathers voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and tried to water-down other equal rights measures that President Lyndon Johnson put through Congress. He opposed Johnson's elevation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.

Relationship with JFK

Smathers befriended John F. Kennedy and was a groomsman in his wedding, speaking on behalf of JFK at the wedding dinner rehearsal and reception.[1] During the 1960 presidential campaign, Smathers was a favorite son candidate for the Democratic nomination. He later managed John F. 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 60s. "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." [6]

It was leaked to the press that an emerging scandal involving the corrupt activities of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson aide Bobby Baker, prompted President John F. Kennedy to privately offer Smathers 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 and retired from politics. He continued to keep his hand in the game, though, as a lobbyist.

Later life

Soon after leaving the Senate, Smathers divorced his first wife, 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 JFK's old nemesis, Richard Nixon, when Nixon was looking for a residence 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 $20 million gift to the University of Florida library system, now known as the George A. Smathers Libraries.

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

Other notable facts

  • The current senior US Senator from Florida, Bill Nelson, was an intern during the summers of 1961 & 1962 in Smathers' Washington office.[7]
  • During his life, Smathers personally knew eleven United States Presidents, starting with FDR. He was a close friend of both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. When asked to contrast these two very different men, Smathers said that although he was very fond of both, Kennedy was a lot more "fun".
  • Smathers was reported to be the only non-Kennedy/Bouvier family member to have been in the highly publicized 1953 wedding in Newport (RI) and was co-bestman with Robert Kennedy.
  • Smathers introduced close friend and Key Biscayne neighbor Charles Rebozo to Richard Nixon. Smathers had recommended Key Biscayne as a vacation destination to Nixon. While Nixon was vacationing in Key Biscayne, Smathers had Rebozo take Nixon deep sea fishing. Smathers later sold Nixon his Key Biscayne home which became famous as the Florida White House.
  • Smathers Beach, a popular Key West destination, is named after the senator.
  • The handsome politician was known as "Gorgeous George" by his detractors.[2]
  • Smathers served as a guest panelist on episode #360 of the television game show What's My Line?, which originally aired on April 28, 1957, and in 1957, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and was frequently a guest on Larry King Live and other news programs.
  • Smathers was the last surviving senatorial signer of the Southern Manifesto and was the last living member of congress from the 1940s.
  • Smathers often attended "Church by the Sea", the United Church of Christ church in Bal Harbour, Florida where his funeral was held. [3]
  • Smathers' remains are located in Arlington National Cemetery.


  • Brian Lewis Crispell. Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America (1999), the standard scholarly biography
  1. ^ a b c Fund, John, PoliticalJournal "George Smathers, RIP", January 24, 2007
  2. ^ Crispell 66-67
  3. ^ ABC News: ABC News
  4. ^ Anything Goes - TIME
  5. ^ State: A born winner, if not a native Floridian
  6. ^ p. 95, Mudd, Roger (2008). The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the glory days of television news. New York, New York: PublicAffairs, 95. ISBN 978-1-58648-576-4 (hardcover).
  7. ^ Palm Beach Post, October 22, 2006.

External links

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

1947 – 1951
Succeeded by
William C. Lantaff
United States Senate
Preceded by
Claude Pepper
United States Senator (Class 3) from Florida
1951 – 1969
Served alongside: Spessard Holland
Succeeded by
Edward J. Gurney
Political offices
Preceded by
John Sparkman
Chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee
Succeeded by
Alan Bible
Party political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Hennings
Secretary of Senate Democratic Conference
Succeeded by
Robert Byrd
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Russell B. Long
Most Senior Living U.S. Senator
(Sitting or Former)

May 9, 2003 – January 20, 2007
Succeeded by
Robert Byrd

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