Former Sen. George Smathers Dies at 93

The Associated Press
Sunday, January 21, 2007; 4:53 AM

MIAMI -- Former U.S. Sen. George A. Smathers, a polished, dashing politician who forged friendships with presidents, waged war against communism, resisted civil rights legislation and was an early voice cautioning of Fidel Castro's rise to power, died Saturday. He was 93.

The Democrat, who served two terms in the U.S. House and three in the Senate, suffered a stroke Monday, said his son, Bruce. He lived in Indian Creek Village, an exclusive island community outside Miami.

Smathers was among a new breed of congressmen _ along with John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon _ who arrived on Capitol Hill in the late 1940s with a worldliness that few before them had brought. Shaped by World War II duty in the Marines, Smathers used his more than two decades in Washington to focus on international issues and fight the spread of communism.

The senator was a political force who managed to unseat familiar faces, garner the ears of the powerful and stake a place as a moderate able to straddle both sides of the aisle. But by the time Smathers left office in 1969 _ at his own choosing _ some dismissed his legislative achievements as far less impressive than his Rolodex.

Charming and 6-foot-2, so handsome in his tailored suits his opponents took to calling him "Gorgeous George," Smathers seemed to win friends wherever he went.

At Kennedy's wedding rehearsal dinner, Smathers spoke on behalf of the groom. When Lyndon Johnson suffered his first heart attack, Smathers was at his side. And when Nixon sought a refuge from the White House, it was Smathers who sold him his Key Biscayne home.

Smathers' links to the powerful meant he was frequently turned to for counsel, but his advice was often ignored and his stances didn't always fall in line with his party's leadership.

Like other Southern Democrats, Smathers coddled segregationist white voters. He supported voting rights for blacks but sought to weaken other equal rights measures or simply vote against them, as he did with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said such matters were better left in the hands of the people.

"I don't like bigotry and intolerance," he said, according to Brian Lewis Crispell's 1999 biography "Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America." "But they do exist and I don't think you're going to get them out by passing laws."

He opposed Thurgood Marshall's nomination to the Supreme Court. He called the Brown v. Board of Education decision a "clear abuse of judicial power." And when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in St. Augustine, Smathers offered to pay the minister's bail, but only if he left the state.

While such positions led some to label Smathers a racist _ those who knew him insist he was simply trying to keep his job _ his expertise on Latin America made him an early advocate for the people of that region, if for nothing more than to quash communism's expansion.

Smathers consistently pleaded for more attention for Latin America. He pushed the Alliance for Progress, which pumped billions of dollars in additional aid to the region, and was among the earliest and loudest voices cautioning of Castro's communist leanings, urging a hard-line approach to Cuba and a total embargo on its goods.

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