George A. Smathers, 93; Former Florida Senator

Associated Press
Sunday, January 21, 2007

George A. Smathers, 93, a former Democratic senator from Florida who forged friendships with presidents, waged war against communism, resisted civil rights legislation and was an early voice warning against Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba, died Jan. 20 at Indian Creek Village, an exclusive island community near Miami. He had a stroke earlier in the week.

Mr. Smathers was among a new breed of congressmen -- including John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon -- who arrived on Capitol Hill in the late 1940s and were shaped by their experience in World War II. Mr. Smathers used his during more than two decades in Washington to focus on international issues and to fight communism.

Early in his career he was considered a moderate, but by the time he left office in 1969, he had a tarnished legacy as an opponent of civil rights.

Charming, tall and handsome -- his opponents called him "Gorgeous George" -- Mr. Smathers easily won friends. He spoke on behalf of the groom at Kennedy's wedding rehearsal dinner. When Lyndon B. Johnson suffered his first heart attack, Mr. Smathers was at his side. And when Nixon sought a refuge from the White House, Mr. Smathers sold him a house on Key Biscayne in Florida.

In spite of his connections, Mr. Smathers sometimes found himself at odds with his party's leadership. Like other Southern Democrats, he coddled segregationist white voters. He supported voting rights for African Americans but sought to weaken other equal rights measures and voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He opposed Thurgood Marshall's nomination to the Supreme Court and called the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared school segregation illegal -- a "clear abuse of judicial power." When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in St. Augustine, Fla., Mr. Smathers offered to pay King's bail, but only if he left the state.

As an expert on Latin America, Mr. Smathers supported the Alliance for Progress, which pumped billions of dollars in aid to the region. He was also among the earliest and loudest voices cautioning of Castro's communist leanings and urged a hard-line approach to Cuba and a total embargo on its goods.

George Armistead Smathers was born Nov. 13, 1913, in Atlantic City. His father was a federal judge and his uncle a U.S. senator. His family moved to Miami when he was 6, and he won his first election, as student body president, while attending Miami Senior High School.

After graduating from the University of Florida, he received a law degree from there in 1938. He served as an assistant U.S. district attorney, then entered the Marine Corps during World War II.

In 1946, Mr. Smathers won his congressional seat by unseating a four-term representative. He and Kennedy, who was elected the same year, shared similar affluent backgrounds, wartime experiences and a passion for golf -- and women. Hampered by a bad back and other war injuries, Kennedy sometimes leaned on Mr. Smathers as they walked to the floor of Congress to cast votes.

When Mr. Smathers ran for the Senate in 1950, the race turned out to be among the most contentious in Florida's history. Mr. Smathers badgered incumbent Sen. Claude Pepper (D) on his support of civil rights and accused Pepper of being a communist sympathizer. Both sides issued scurrilous statements, but the most famous remarks may never have been uttered.

"Do you know that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?" Mr. Smathers was quoted as saying. "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 comments appeared in Time magazine and were forever etched into public memory, but Mr. Smathers denied ever having made them. Pepper's backers called Mr. Smathers a fearmonger and a bigot, but Mr. Smathers prevailed.

In Congress, Mr. Smathers helped pass bills to create Medicare, the Small Business Administration and Everglades National Park. He pushed for federal holidays to be moved to Mondays and ardently supported the war in Vietnam.

After voluntarily leaving office in 1969, Mr. Smathers made a fortune through lobbying and varied business ventures, ranging from orange groves to car dealerships. He gave tens of millions of dollars to the University of Florida and the University of Miami.

His first marriage, to Rosemary Townley Smathers, ended in divorce soon after his departure from politics.

Survivors include his wife, Carolyn Hyder Smathers, whom he married in the early 1970s, of Indian Creek Village; two sons from his first marriage, John Smathers of Arlington and Bruce Smathers, a former Florida secretary of state, of Jacksonville; a sister; and three grandchildren.

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