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George Smathers, 93; Democratic senator, Florida conservative

January 21, 2007|From the Associated Press

Former U.S. Sen. George A. Smathers, 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 in Cuba, died Saturday. He was 93.

The Florida Democrat, who served two terms in the 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 arrived on Capitol Hill in the late 1940s and quickly made friends with John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, among others.

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.

Like other Southern Democrats, Smathers accommodated segregationist white voters. He supported voting rights for blacks but sought to weaken other equal rights measures or simply voted against them, as he did with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He opposed Thurgood Marshall's nomination to the Supreme Court and called the Brown vs. Board of Education decision a "clear abuse of judicial power."

Though such positions led some to label Smathers a racist -- supporters say 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 prevent communism's expansion.

Smathers backed the Alliance for Progress, which pumped billions of dollars in aid to Latin America, and was among the earliest and loudest voices warning of Castro's communist leanings, urging a hard-line approach to Cuba and a total embargo on its goods. He ardently supported the war in Vietnam.

He helped pass bills to create Medicare, the Small Business Administration and Everglades National Park. He also pushed for federal holidays to be moved to Mondays, essentially creating the modern three-day weekend.

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.

After earning undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, Smathers served as an assistant U.S. attorney, then entered the Marine Corps. After his discharge he pursued politics, winning his first congressional seat in 1946.

Four years later, Smathers ran for the Senate and badgered incumbent Democrat Claude Pepper for his support of civil rights and charged that his pleas for patience with the Soviet Union made him a communist sympathizer. The most famous remarks of the campaign -- innocuous statements that could be perceived as scandalous when delivered to poorly educated audiences -- may never have been uttered by Smathers.

"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 as a political "yarn" and etched into the minds of the public, but Smathers denied ever having made them.

After leaving office in 1969, he made a fortune through a lobbying office and business ventures including orange groves and car dealerships.

Among his survivors are his second wife, the former Carolyn Hyder; his son Bruce, a former secretary of state in Florida who lives in Jacksonville; another son, John, of Arlington, Va.; and a sister, Virginia Myers of Coral Gables, Fla.

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