Red Pepper and Gorgeous George
Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary
James C. Clark
The campaign that changed everything in Florida
“In this important and insightful work, Clark does much to separate myth from reality in the pivotal 1950 Florida Senate race that shaped state and national politics for decades to come. Red Pepper and Gorgeous George captures the drama, controversy, and chicanery of one of America’s most memorable elections. A must-read for anyone interested in Florida and southern history.”
— Keith M. Finley, Southeastern Louisiana University
The 2000 presidential election introduced the phrase “hanging chad” to the national lexicon but for those in the know the Florida “election of the century” took place 50 years earlier.
Claude Pepper was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1944. A Democrat, he had every reason to suspect the seat was his indefinitely. Certainly no Republican candidate could challenge him in general election. Pepper never counted on George Smathers.
Pepper saw himself as the national heir to Roosevelt’s foreign policy; he encouraged cooperation with the Soviet Union, our WWII ally, and actively worked to defeat Truman’s presidential nomination in 1948. However, the political world was changing, and it was Smathers, not Pepper, who recognized and took advantage of this fact. Although McCarthyism was later named after the junior senator from Wisconsin, it was Smathers who first—and successfully—used such divisive tactics in what became a vicious, bare-knuckled campaign.
Smathers’ resounding victory inspired others, including Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, to adopt similar tactics. It also helped set the stage for the complete reversal of the political power structure that had ruled the South for nearly a century.
James C. Clark, former editor of Orlando magazine, teaches history at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of four books, including Faded Glory: Presidents Out of Power.