The late Senator George Smathers (D-Florida) was a close friend of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon. His name is adorned on some of several sites in this state including the University of Florida library system and the most popular beach in Key West.
Smathers image has been defined by two things – on the positive side his close relationship with multiple US Presidents. In 2013, the local PBS station, in Miami/Fort Lauderdale WPBT ran the following documentary on Smathers.
WPBT: George Smathers Documentary
The second defining talking point about Smathers has been widely discussed on these pages and our sister podcast – the moderately conservative Smathers 1950 Democratic Primary victory over liberal icon, Senator Claude Pepper, who was then one of the most vocal pro New Deal Senators in the country.
In our view, McCarthyism got a big boost because of Smathers victory in that primary and the manner in which he kicked Pepper around. Without George Smathers, Joe McCarthy may have flamed out in 1950 when Senator Millard Tydings (a conservative) unmasked the fraud in his charges, but the Florida result gave McCarthy and his allies a template with which to move forward.
In the next several weeks, we’d like to add a new element to the discussion – Smathers actual record. We will look at his views on Civil Rights and his influence within the politics of the state as it related to more progressive forces such as Governor Leroy Collins and Miami Mayor Robert King High. We will review Smathers record on race, voting rights as well as his overall influence on Florida, including environmental issues and land preservation.
This is a lot to unpack, but Smathers legacy, inherently contradictory on the surface has bothered us for years. It’s also worthy of discussion because unlike many other politicians in this state from yesteryear, he’s been celebrated in a more mainstream and lasting manner than just about anyone else.