Former Sen. Smathers dies at 93

Former U.S. Sen. George A. Smathers in  2000Tony Gutierrez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

‘Gorgeous George’
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.

"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.

Criticized as bigot
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.