From 1963 until he died in 1989, Claude Pepper represented Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which included Key Biscayne, Bal Harbour and Coral Gables, as well as all of Miami Beach. For the last decade of those 26 years, Pepper was so popular with his constituents that he was generally re-elected with over 70% of the vote. And while he was staunchly anti-Castro, most of his popularity came from the legislation he introduced on behalf of America’s elderly. In fact, Pepper fought so hard for old folks for so long, he became known as “Mr. Social Security.” It is a legacy that endures to this day.
Before there was Pepper the Congressman, however, there was Pepper the Senator, and that Pepper was in many ways a very different politician than the one we remember now. Serving during a time (1936-1951) when Blacks had been disenfranchised and the Dixiecrats reigned supreme, the Alabama-born son of a sharecropper seems to have possessed some startling supremacist views. Granted State Representative Pepper voted against the Florida State Legislature’s 1929 resolution condemning First Lady Lou Henry Hoover’s White House tea invitation to Jessie DePriest, the wife of the first Black congressman since Reconstruction. And Senator Pepper advocated anti-poll tax legislation, as well as the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (which would have extended equal employment rights to Blacks and women). Yet he never failed to join his fellow Democrats in matters such as filibustering anti-lynching legislation.
At the same time Pepper the Senator was one of the most unabashedly outspoken Liberals in Congress. A staunch and ardent supporter of FDR’s New Deal, he fought for workers rights (helping to institute the 40 hour work week), in addition to the rights of all Americans to have health care (yes, universal health care). As senator, Pepper also was among the first to see the threat posed by Hitler, and he sponsored the Lend-Lease Act, “the program under which the United States supplied the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China, France, and other Allied nations with war materiel between 1941 and 1945.” (Thanks Wiki!) After World War II however, Pepper the Senator inexplicably cozied up to Joseph Stalin, and throughout the remainder of the decade openly and outwardly praised the self-proclaimed “Great Architect of Communism.”
It is that Claude Pepper who serves as the focal point of James C. Clark’s Red Pepper and Gorgeous George (University Press of Florida $29.95), a spirited recounting of the brutal primary fight between the then seated senator and a Miami “pretty boy” congressman named George Smathers. Pepper, who’d appeared at numerous ultra-Liberal rallies and had even been photographed alongside the notorious Paul Robeson (a no-no on two counts), was wide open to accusations of being a Communist Fellow Traveler. Smathers took the Red-baiting and wrung it around Pepper’s neck, and in the process created a campaign that set stage for all kinds of dirty tricks to come.
Having devoured the mid-century flashback in a single night, SunPost Weekly thought it wise to reach out to the author himself. Here’s how he reached back.
You paint a portrait of Claude Pepper that — at least to this Miami native — seems almost the polar opposite of his legacy. Would you say there were in fact two Claude Peppers?
Claude Pepper lived from 1900 to 1989 and was involved in some of history’s most memorable events. He reinvented himself a number of times: Leading New Dealer, one of the first to sound the alarm over Adolf Hitler, friend of Joseph Stalin, crime fighter, anti-Communist, and champion of the elderly. His last years brought him fame for expanding government programs for the elderly
Version 1.0 though was surprisingly Old South. Was Pepper the Senator really such a segregationist, or was his equivocating more a matter of expedience?
Pepper wrestled throughout his early career with Civil Rights. During his senate career, he was a loyal White Supremacist. When he returned to Congress in 1963, he represented a Miami district where Civil Rights was not the major issue it was in other areas of the South.
Did Pepper the Congressman eventually come to see the error of his anti-Civil Rights ways?
Yes, once back in Congress, he was a supporter of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
Speaking of errors, how on earth could such a supposedly informed senator have been so wrong on Stalin and the Soviet Union?
Pepper had been so very right on Hitler, he thought he was infallible. When everyone else was being an isolationist and even praising Hitler, Pepper warned that war was coming. He was widely criticized for his views. When Stalin came along, Pepper thought that cozying up to Russia would make him a world figure and put him in the White House. There were others who were wrong also.
For an astute politician, Pepper the Senator he also seemed to become incredibly out of touch with the electorate. Was that a case of simple hubris?
Pepper did not see what was happening in America, but he was not alone. Long after Roosevelt had died, Pepper thought continually embracing the New Deal would keep him in office. Everyone had kept saying that his speech-making was so good he could turn any situation around. He came to believe it.
Do you think the loss to Smathers finally knocked some sense into him?
I think he was shocked by the loss. He thought until the end that he would win. I also thought he was surprised that after his defeat he was quickly written out of Florida politics. There were no job offers and his advice was not sought.
That Smathers’ upset also served as a sorta blueprint for other renowned campaigns, didn’t it?
Even though Smathers was a Democrat, it was the Republicans who adapted his strategy. Richard Nixon, a close friend, used the Smathers strategy to win a Senate seat in California. Where Pepper was branded Red Pepper, Nixon labeled his opponent [Helen Gahagan Douglas] the Pink Lady. Two years later, Barry Goldwater used the technique to win against Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in Arizona.
Was there any other legacy left behind by the Red Pepper/Gorgeous George face off?
It’s been 61 years since the Pepper/Smathers election and no successful statewide candidate has ever labeled himself a “liberal.” In fact, being tagged a “liberal” has usually been the course to defeat. Pepper was the last.
One other thing certainly left behind was a certain Cracker stump speech, could you please re-share that nugget?
Time magazine ran a tongue-in-cheek article that imagined Smathers giving a speech to North Florida crackers using big words that sounded scandalous. It began with “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?” and went on from there, finally ending with “Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy.” There was no truth to the story, but it became legendary and grew with each retelling. Today, it has dozens of lines. Even though Smathers never gave the speech, it is probably what he is best known for.