Page 2 of 2   <      

Former Sen. George Smathers Dies at 93

"We have a moral as well as a legal responsibility to pursue a policy that will lead to Castro's downfall," he once told The New York Times.

Kennedy sought his friend's advice on Cuba and other issues.

Their upbringings of affluence, wartime experiences and passion for golf _ and women _ ensured they shared more than just adjacent offices when both arrived in the House in 1946.

Kennedy leaned on Smathers _ literally. As the story goes, hampered by a bad back and other war injuries, Kennedy took advantage of his office's proximity to Smathers' when they walked to the floor of Congress to cast votes, leaning on his new friend.

George Armistead Smathers was born Nov. 13, 1913, in Atlantic City, N.J. His father was a federal judge; his uncle a U.S. senator. His family moved to Miami when he was 6 and he attended public schools, including Miami Senior High School, where he ran for student body president, and like every other election he entered, emerged victorious.

After earning undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, Smathers served as an assistant U.S. district attorney, then entered the Marines. After his discharge, he served a short stint in the U.S. Attorney General's Office before pursuing politics.

Smathers unseated a four-term congressman to win his seat in 1946, but it was his Senate race four years later that was among the most contentious in Florida's history.

The congressman badgered incumbent Sen. Claude Pepper on his support of civil rights and charged his pleas for patience with the Soviet Union made him a communist sympathizer. Scurrilous statements were uttered on both sides of the campaign, but the most famous remarks _ innocuous declarations delivered to less-educated audiences to appear scandalous _ may have never been uttered.

"Do you know that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?" he 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 were recorded in a small magazine, picked up in Time and elsewhere and etched into the public's memories, but Smathers denied ever having made them. He offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove he did, but no one could.

Pepper's backers called Smathers _ who had previously worked on his challenger's campaign _ a fearmonger and a bigot whose tactics amounted to McCarthyism. But Smathers prevailed.

In his political career, 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, essentially creating the modern three-day weekend. And he ardently supported the war in Vietnam.

Despite his popularity _ and the prodding of others _ Smathers said he had no interest in ascending further in politics. After leaving office in 1969, he made a fortune through a lobbying office and varied business ventures from orange groves to car dealerships. He gave tens of millions of dollars to his alma mater, the University of Florida, and to the University of Miami.

Smathers' first marriage, to the former Rosemary Townley, ended in divorce shortly after his departure from politics; she died in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, the former Carolyn Hyder, to whom he'd been married since the early 1970s; his son Bruce, a former secretary of state in Florida who lives in Jacksonville; another son, John, of Arlington, Va.; a sister, Virginia Myers, of Coral Gables; and three grandchildren.

A funeral service is scheduled for Jan. 29 in Bal Harbour.


<       2

© 2007 The Associated Press