George A. Smathers
A Man for the Times
Immediately following World War II America was a society in a state of evolution, forced by complex social and economic pressures to reinvent itself. Old institutions and political systems were pushed aside as servicemen returned from war, their youthful energy tempered by the hard lessons of battle. These men would place their hands on the nation and steer it into the modern era. George Armistead Smathers (JD 38) was one of these men.
Tall, handsome and well-liked, Smathers’ charisma and natural leadership abilities emerged early when he was elected student body president at Miami High School. Later, at the University of Florida, where he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees, Smathers was elected president of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, captain of the basketball team, president of the student body, and was a member of Florida Blue Key. His illustrious UF career later led to his induction to the University of Florida Hall of Fame.
After earning his law degree, Smathers returned to Miami and settled down as the assistant U.S. attorney from 1940-1942, making a name for himself as the prosecutor in several high-profile cases. When the nation entered World War II, he served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps and was stationed in the Solomon Islands.
Following the war, Smathers returned to Miami and ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected to serve two terms (1947-1951), representing Florida’s 4th Congressional District. It was during his service in the House that President Harry Truman encouraged him to run for the United States Senate against incumbent Claude Pepper.
Senator Pepper, for whom Smathers had served as Gainesville campaign manager during Pepper’s 1938 senate race, was a formidable opponent. But, because of his many statements on the Senate floor and elsewhere in support of the Soviet Union, he was seen as being soft on the growing threat of communism. Smathers campaigned successfully on the dangers of the “Red Menace,” but it was a grueling, bare-knuckled fight — nonetheless, Smathers won in a landslide by more than 60,000 votes.
Smathers represented Florida in the U.S. Senate for 18 years (1951-1969). Other notable freshmen senators in the class of 1951 included John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Smathers became friend and confidant to both men, but Kennedy was especially close. He managed Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the Southeast, and spoke on behalf of the groom at Kennedy’s wedding rehearsal dinner.
“I was a close, intimate friend of his [Kennedy], and he was a close intimate friend of mine and we remained that way… He depended on me when he was president,” Smathers later said. “A lot of joy and pleasure went out of my life when Kennedy was assassinated… I miss the guy something fierce.”
As an influential Democratic congressman for 22 years, and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for six years, Smathers introduced legislation to create Medicaid and the Everglades National Park, advocated for economic aid to Latin America, and was an early voice decrying Fidel Castro as a dictator. Smathers pleased his Cuban constituency back home by introducing legislation that gave asylum in the U.S. to Cubans fleeing persecution under Castro’s regime. He was also highly pragmatic when it came to voting on civil rights issues.
Smathers signed the Southern Manifesto protesting desegregation following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and consistently voted with the segregationist
Dixiecrats in Congress who often filibustered any legislation expanding civil rights. Yet, he and Sen. Spessard Holland (JD 16) sponsored a bill eliminating poll taxes designed to prevent blacks from voting. Although he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Smathers is credited as having served as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s behind-the-scenes operator who paved the way for its passage.
A 2003 St. Petersburg Times article reported on this seemingly contradictory stance, “Smathers was ‘a bridge between the South and North,’ said Tarpon Springs resident Jerald Blizen, who covered Smathers as the St. Petersburg Times’ Washington correspondent before becoming Smathers’ press secretary. ‘Johnson used him to convince the Southerners to come around….’ But, behind the scenes, he quietly supported federal voting rights bills, giving political cover to other Southerners to inch forward.”
In 1969, Smathers retired from the Senate. He returned to the law and amassed a fortune through lobbying and various business ventures. In addition to other gifts to UF, in 1991 Smathers made an astounding $20 million bequest to benefit the library system.
George A Smathers passed away at the age of 93 on Jan. 20, 2007. He was survived by his wife Carolyn Hyder Smathers of Indian Creek Village; his sons from his first marriage to Rosemary Townley Smathers, John Smathers of Arlington, Virg. and Bruce Smathers, of Jacksonville; a sister; and three grandchildren. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.