The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, August 22, 2005

A Smathers-Pepper quotechase

I've talked about Florida Senator (later Represenative) Claude Pepper several times, notably on February 20.

The 1950 campaign that pitted Pepper against George Smathers was full of incident. Smathers was one of the new, post-Bilbo, breed of Southern pols; the line taken by his (fairly dirty) campaign was that Pepper was a Commie, rather than a nigger-lover. (Though the two smears could always be combined, in suggestions that civil rights was a Communist plot!)

Over at the Urban Legends boards, they challenge the veracity of an alleged Smathers quote:
Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? 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.

Smathers was supposingly bamboozling some of the more retarded - or, being charitable, less well-informed - of his prospective rural constituents.

Was this kosher or the product of the imagination of Pepper's Karl Rove equivalent? It first appeared in Quote magazine [1], and then
was published by Time magazine on 17 April 1950 and then by Life magazine in its 23 October 1950 issue. The infamous lines by then were considered fact, though they had never been printed during the campaign by any Florida newspaper following the candidates, not even by Nelson Poynter's St. Petersburg Times.

(On the other hand, there is no item returned by a search in the New York Times archive for calendar 1950 for either pepper and thespian or smathers thespian.)

There are namechecks for William F Buckley's 1954 McCarthy and His Enemies (a housebroken treatment of Tail-Gunner Joe's political case) and Howell Raines, no less, who wrote a piece on the campaign for the Times in 1983 [2] (while Pepper was not only still alive but was a serving Congressman from Florida).

The Urban Legends page suggests (with references) that an inspiration of the alleged quote may have been our old friend Senator Beauregard Claghorn (a sort of humourous Bilbo with the white supremacy toned down a bit), character of comedian Kenny Delmar on The Fred Allen Show (from 1942); also mentioned is Samuel Goldwyn and his Goldwynisms - supplied by scriptwriters, it seems.

All fine and dandy.

The wider point is the lack of a yardstick by which to judge how dirty that, and other, campaigns, actually were. It's all anecdotal, so far as I know.

Was Willis Smith/Frank Graham (also 1950) worse? How do either rate against Max Cleland/Saxby Chambliss (2002), to take a recent notorious example?

Intimidation, bribery, fraud in elections - retail crookedness - are surely as American as apple pie; a thespian-style roorback (a Swift-Boating) which operates wholesale via the media is perhaps more humane.

  1. For the existence of which there is some slight evidence.

  2. The NYT archive search comes up with the goods. There is no sign that Pepper was a source; or of a letter to the editor. (Smathers died in 1969, but has an oral history interview at the Senate site.)

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