May 8, 2021

Florida Icon

Icon: George Smathers

Born: Nov. 14, 1913; Died: Jan. 20, 2007 — U.S. senator from Florida, 1951-1969

In February 1987 and August 1989, Smathers, a Democrat, was interviewed as part of the University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. The following is excerpted with permission from the Proctor program. Photo: AP / Tony Gutierrez

I went to Miami High School and then the University of Florida. I was president of the student body there in 1938. That was when I managed Pepper's campaign (Claude Pepper, U.S. Senate, 1936-1951, U.S. House of Representatives, 1963-1989) ... in the county, Alachua County, and in Dixie County and a couple counties around there.

When you are 25 and 26, as I was (while assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida), there is not much gray area. The way you convicted people was to get on the jury only very young (people) who had not made many mistakes in life and were very unforgiving about people who did make mistakes. Or very old people who had forgotten about them, had no joys. If you got those two on the jury, you could convict most anybody. So we put a lot of people in jail. I mean nobody was safe.

I think that Claude (Pepper) wanted to be president, that was his problem. And when (Harry) Truman became vice president, apparently Truman and Claude just did not get along at all. Claude had no use for Truman, and Truman had no use for Claude.

When Truman was going to Key West for his vacation ... they used to play a lot of poker and have a lot of fun on the airplane going down, Air Force One. And Truman would always say, 'Well, congressman, stay over and have dinner with us.' So, I got to know him fairly well during the years that I was in the Congress. But I had never been to the White House. So now it is 1949 and Truman has got the nomination and despises Claude. He calls me over one day ... into the Oval Office. The door opens and here comes Truman, businesslike and right to the point. So he said, 'Sit down. Take it easy. I want you to do me a big favor.' And I said, 'Yes, sir, yes, Mr. President, what is it?' (Truman said,) 'I want you to beat that son of a bitch Claude Pepper.' Just like that.

You know, you get here (Washington, D.C.) and you are in the swing of things and you begin to look at these guys and they are not all that they have been written about.

When I was campaigning, I was going into the end of Polk County there, there was a unionized group and the unions hated my guts. They had already taken the nut loose, a bolt on my car, so we ran off the road and turned over and damned near got killed. It was rough. I went to Fort Meade, I was supposed to speak there and they had blocked me out with cars and people. So I went on in anyway. I got the microphone and I started saying, 'I think you want to listen -- at least be fair and listen to both sides.' Pretty soon, heckling started, and they just threw things, all over the place. I walked down, and a lady had a mouthful of tobacco juice or something and spit it right in my eyes. And everybody was applauding the lady and saying, 'Give it to him again; give it to him.' I never did get to make a speech. It was a rough campaign.

The Bible says you must forgive seven times seven. And while I am not the greatest follower of the Bible, I nonetheless believe it. I do not want to go through life being bitter at anybody.
I was the best man at his (John F. Kennedy's) wedding. It was just chemistry in a way, mostly chemistry I would say with Jack Kennedy, because he was more liberal than I was. But we got along great, and we hit it off well.

Kennedy decided that he wanted to run in Florida. At the same time, Johnson also decided that he would run in that Democratic primary down there against Kennedy. So here I was caught between Johnson on the one side, who was my leader -- I was his whip -- and here was my dear friend, personal friend, Kennedy, and they're going to go into my state and ruin it. So I decided that I was going to run, and I announced that I was going to run for president in Florida. I would be the favorite son from Florida, and that would stop Johnson and Kennedy from dividing up the state.

A lot of joy and pleasure went out of my life when Kennedy was assassinated. He was a guy who made life better for me and for a lot of other people. Not his politics particularly, but himself, his person. And after Kennedy left, Johnson was there, and I knew Johnson intimately. But you could not get close to Johnson and feel like he was your buddy and your friend.

I never quite will ever forgive Johnson for it. He talked Kennedy into making the vice president the head of the satellite program, the head of exploring space. And the first thing that Johnson did was he took half of what we had at Cape Kennedy -- we called it Cape Canaveral at that time -- and moved it over to Texas. It never has made sense to have a big operation at Cape Canaveral and another great big operation in Texas.

Johnson turned me off in a way, personally, that I could not accept. So that was when I decided
I was going to retire four or five years before I announced it.

I knew Nixon as well, I guess, as anybody. Nixon was a very hard fellow to know. I introduced Nixon to Bebe Rebozo, and Rebozo and Nixon became the best of best friends.

I enjoyed it. It is a hard life, and it is much harder than people really understand. You cannot believe unless you have actually been in it and had all the demands made on you. I mean, there is never a weekend that you can really call your own and even when you finally escape and tell people that you are going to Italy or somewhere, you feel guilty, because you have been invited to 20 different things that you know damn well you ought to be at if you are going to have an easy re-election.

The Complete Interview
WEB EXCLUSIVE: To read the complete text of the interview, go to

Tags: Politics & Law, Florida Icon, North Central, Government/Politics & Law

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