Chapter 3: Getting Into The Race Against Claude Pepper

Although admonished by President Truman to take on Claude Pepper in the senatorial race, Smathers remained reluctant. Wasn't Governor Millard Caldwell better known statewide than he? His vacillating was changed with a phone call from Caldwell.

The Governor spoke of the sad memories Washington held. Their son had been struck by an automobile and killed while he, as a Congressman lived in the nation's capital. Mrs. Caldwell did not want to go back, he told Smathers.

Caldwell urged him to run because "Claude has gotten completely out-of-line in his politics. He needs to be brought home and to get reacquainted with the people again." Publicly, Caldwell stated, "Florida earnestly needs a change."

Even after that door was opened by Caldwell, Smathers still was hesitant to walk through it.

Although they held opposing views on foreign affairs and domestic issues, Smathers had a working relationship with Senator Pepper from his days as president of the student body of the University of Florida, when Senator Pepper had asked him to manage his campaign. This cordial relationship had continued through Smathers' nomination to assistant U. S. District Attorney and his service as Congressman from South Florida.

On two separate occasions, Congressman Smathers had warned Pepper that he was alienating the voters of Florida with his speeches and his statements that indicated he was soft on communism and that his votes against aid to Greece and Turkey plus his speeches against the Marshall Plan did not sit well with the voters.

Both times, Smathers recalls, Pepper expressed confidence that all he had to do was make a speaking tour around the state and that all would be well. "It looked bad for me in 1944," Pepper told him. "All I did was to make two trips up and down the state and it was all over."

Smathers' hesitance to run against Pepper was buttressed by a Floridian voting custom, that of electing one senator for the northern part of the peninsula and one from the south. Since Sen. Spessard Holland was from Bartow, that was deemed to be South Florida. Smathers' residence in Miami would be a real obstacle, coupled with the fact that historically there had never been a Governor, or U.S. Senator elected from South Florida. Especially Miami.

Even within his own camp, George Smathers heard dissent. His close friend, Sloan McCrea, the Miami food broker who had managed both his campaigns for Congress in Dade County, saw it as a foolish move. Who could go head-to-head against such a national figure, quite so eloquent? Heeding well-intentioned advice, Smathers decided not to enter the race and readied himself for a Congressional trip to the Pacific area where he had served during World War II; he had even taken the necessary shots.

Just before that trip, the late Herbert E. Wolfe, a highly successful road contractor, invited Smathers to stay overnight at his home in St. Augustine. As they sat in his living room, Wolfe began calling friends around the state, telling them that Smathers was right there trying to make up his mind and what did they think?

A groundswell of support began that night, igniting a spark in Smathers' outlook, which convinced him to go for it. He credits Wolfe with being the man responsible for his running.

There remained one mission to accomplish before Smathers would give the green light; the availability and willingness of Richard C. Danner to be his campaign manager. Head of the Miami FBI office when Smathers had been U.S. Attorney, Danner retired to head Smathers' first Congressional campaign and later had served as Miami City Manager. When Danner said he would do the deed, it was a go.

By late fall of 1949, while no announcement had been made, a Pepper-Smathers race was a foregone conclusion. At the homecoming celebration in Gainesville, Pepper declined to shake Smathers' hand.

In mid-December, when Smathers gave a speech warning of "creeping socialism," Pepper replied as if the charge had been directed specifically at him. In a speech two days later in Miami, Pepper stated, "The people who are attacking the so-called welfare state are strongly unspecific in their charges."

The Pepper organization was regarded as the strongest political force in Florida, including the followers of Gov. Fuller Warren, whose 1948 election had Pepper's blessing. Pepper had strong support in the city halls and courthouses of the state. Organized labor was completely and militantly in Pepper's corner, as were most of the majority of the minority groups throughout Florida.

While Smathers had no political machinery, no statewide base, there was one group who would join his camp: the doctors.

Fearing the threat of socialized medicine, Florida's doctors deemed Pepper anathema.
On Nov. 15, 1949, Dr. Frank G. Slaughter, then chairman of the public relations committee of the Florida Medical Association and later to become one of the nation's all-time best-selling authors, told a FMA meeting that doctors must try to stop "the progress of socialism" and he added that the immediate task of Florida's doctors "is to unseat Florida's Senator Claude Pepper."

Old class books in hand, Smathers began contracting University of Florida alumni, friends he had made during his six years at Gainesville, who were eager to help. Although political tyros, they had begun to achieve positions of influence in their communities throughout the state

To Smathers' delight, none of those contacted turned him down. Those in west and central Florida told Smathers that Pepper had become an embarrassment. These Florida alumni and their friends formed the nucleus of a campaign organization that made up for its amateur status with youth and drive.

Just as they had helped in his congressional campaign, Junior Chamber of Commerce members throughout the state were Smathers' stalwarts. Having been president of the Miami Jaycees before the war, Smathers was chosen by the national organization, in 1948, one of the most outstanding young men in the nation, an honor he had shared with his personal friend Jack Kennedy.

In that first small group of WWII combat veterans to go to Congress, Smathers had great appeal for veterans: they would be coalesced into a potent force when Pepper attacked Smathers' patriotism.

Ironically, it could be said that the biggest single pool of Smathers supporters was created by Pepper himself. This included those who were never for him and a growing number who had become disenchanted as a result of his votes and radical positions.

Even before the campaign officially began, the Smathers camp claimed that managers in 23 of the state's 87 counties were former Pepper campaign managers. As the momentum of enthusiastic support continued, Smathers gathered his close-knit group of advisors to commence campaigning. Their experience was limited to his campaigns for Congress.

Danner would preside over the meetings, usually attended by Smathers' brother-in-law, Jim Townley; Bill Thompson, who served with Smathers in the Marines and was later to become one of John F. Kennedy's closest friends; Bill Jibb, a former newspaper reporter who had roomed with Smathers at the University of Florida...Sloan McCrea, Bebe Reboso, from Miami High School; Manny Garcia and Julian Lane, University of Florida graduates.

The organization Smathers forged was a Florida phenomenon. Looking back the day after the primary, THE MIAMI HERALD said in an editorial that "Smathers had no high-geared, highly paid organization to spark and conduct his campaign. He had no array of experienced, politically astute, machine-minded leaders spotted in political nerve centers of the state...(He) had to rely on array of youthful citizens. They rallied in all sections of the state under his inspiration. They got no money, they expected no money for their voluntary work and personal sacrifice."

From the start, the campaign had high energy. It was decided to announce on Jan. 12 in Orlando, not only for the central location but that Martin Anderson, publisher of the Orlando Sentinel was solidly behind Smathers and indeed had been one of his persuaders.

They planned a motorcade which would originate in far corners of Florida to converge on Orlando, picking up more cars in each city through which they passed. The excitement bred by this maneuver prompted a newspaper writer to say that it resembled a crusade more than a campaign.

Some 40 automobiles started north from Miami. By time they reached Orlando, picking up more cars it had grown to 100. Similar caravans left Pensacola, Jacksonville and Fort Myers, growing as they moved. The sudden influx of automobiles invading Orlando caused one cab driver to call it the biggest traffic jam he had seen in his 10 years at the wheel.

In the Orlando Civic Center, a capacity crowd over 3,000 was distributed in political convention fashion. Delegations from each of the state's 67 counties were grouped around signs bearing the counties' names.

Smathers told his supporters that their battle was not one of personalities but rather between two basic philosophies of government, one leading to "opportunity and freedom," the other to socialism and regimentalism through"political Pied Pipers who attempt to buy our ballots with our own treasury."

He said he stood for the principle of the "Free State against the Jail State, supported by my record in the Congress of the United Sates and as a liberal Democrat."

His harshest rhetoric was for Communism in Russia, for Stalin and for the attempt of the Communist party to gain adherents in the United State. At no time did he mention Pepper by name but sprinkled throughout the speech were many references that could only be interpreted as applying to the incumbent senator.

The real core of his charge was when Smathers was praised by the Truman administration's program of resisting communism by supporting threatened countries such as Greece and Turkey. And proposing the Marshall Plan for Europe's economic recovery.

"You will not find me a senator who would brazenly advocate destroying our atomic bombs and giving the secret to the Soviet Union," he said. "You will not find in me an
apologist for Stalin, nor an associate of fellow travelers, nor a sponsor of Communist front organizations. The leader of the Radicals and extremists is now on trial."

When the silver-tongued Smathers concluded his speech with "I accept the challenge," he set off a 10-minute demonstration that foretold of a hard-hitting, colorful and intense campaign.

His power of persuasion was a big plus for young Smathers. His eloquence was on a par with his personal charm. Yet another asset for the campaign was his friendship with J.E. Davis, now retired board chairman of one of the nation's largest grocery chains, Winn-Dixie.

Smathers said that Davis had "the best political instincts of any man I ever knew." These instincts were to be recognized and depended on years later by Smathers Senate colleagues and his party.

Fortuitous for the campaign was the unasked-for support of Jacksonville financier Ed Ball. Ball's interest was not the election of Smathers but the defeat of Pepper.

Brother-in-law of the late Alfred I. duPont, Ball had been trying for years to gain control of the Florida East Coast Railroad, the line Henry Flagler built along the East coast from Jacksonville to Key West. Flagler had pushed the railroad across Florida's Keys to an engineering marvel that was to become the Overseas Highway.

Ball pure and simple hated unions, especially railroad unions. Pepper, on the other hand, had always been a union supporter. In 1946, A.F. Whitney, President of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, said a Wallace-Pepper ticket would command the support of 99 percent of the railroad union members and a majority of all union members.

At one time a friend of Ball, that had all changed when Pepper, on his own initiative, personally intervened before the Interstate Commerce Commission on behalf of control of the FEC by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and then against Ball and the duPont interests. In addition to deepening Ball's enmity, Pepper's intervention in the railroad dispute also angered East Coast cities and counties that preferred to see the railroad in a competitive position with the ACL rather than as a branch line of the ACL.

Thus the contention by Pepper that Ball had a hand in his defeat, and the denial by Smathers that Ball had a role in his campaign were both true. Ball operated behind the scenes through the anti-Pepper coalition whose members were motivated by fear of Pepper's actions and where they might lead. They basically subscribed to the school that felt, according to Wesley Price 1946 article in the SATURDAY EVENING POST that Pepper was "the most dangerous man in the Senate since Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana.