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The George A. Smathers collection holds materials from and related to former US Senator George A. Smathers, who was designated a Great Floridian by the State of Florida in 1994. This is a new collection in 2013, with ongoing development. Please contact Carl Van Ness with any questions: carvann@uflib.ufl.edu.

Browse materials selected for this digital collection.

Review contents of the full archival collection in the Finding Aid.

Event: A Commemoration of George A. Smathers on the 100th Anniversary of his Birth

November 14, 2013, 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom, Levin College of Law
Poster for the Event

Smathers PosterJoin us as the Levin College of Law and the George A. Smathers Libraries examine the legacy of one of the University of Florida’s most successful and influential alumni. Elected to Congress in 1946 and to the US Senate in 1950 in a storied campaign, the political career of George A. Smathers embraced the emergence of Florida as a modern state and the major challenges of Cold War America. The program will begin with a screening of a new documentary from PBS affiliate WPBT2 in South Florida that details Smathers’ close friendships with three American Presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Following the documentary, four panelists will explore different dimensions of Smathers’ career and legacy.

  • 5:30 Documentary. “A Friend of Presidents: Senator George A. Smathers” Produced by WPBT2, South Florida
  • 6:15 “George A. Smathers: Career and Legacy” a panel discussion moderated by Ben Brotemarkle with authors Brian Crispell, James C. Clark and Patricia Wickman and United States Senator Bill Nelson.

Sponsors: George A. Smathers Libraries, Levin College of Law and the Smathers Family

Biographical/Historical Note

(Text below from the Finding Aid for the archival collection; see the full Finding Aid.)

George Armistead Smathers was born on November 14, 1913 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Because his family had a lengthy history of political involvement, Smathers was groomed for politics at an early age. He was named for his father's uncle, George H. Smathers, who had served as the President of the North Carolina State Senate. His father, Benjamin Franklin Smathers, began his political career as a page for that uncle and later was appointed as a county judge. Additionally, Benjamin's younger brother, Bill, served as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey from 1937-1943.

Smathers moved with his parents to Miami, Florida, when he was six. He grew up in Magnolia Park, and was successful in both academics and sports while a pupil in Dade County Public Schools. He graduated in the top quarter of his class at Miami High School and served as the captain of the track and basketball teams. He was elected Senior Class President and named Outstanding Athlete of Dade County in 1931. He hoped to play college football at the University of Illinois, but his father refused, arguing that if George was to enter politics he needed to attend the University of Florida in order to meet boys from all over Florida. At UF, Smathers was the captain of both the basketball and track teams. He also was the captain of the debate team, president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, president of the student body, and campus manager for Claude Pepper's 1938 Senate reelection campaign.

Smathers graduated with a law degree in 1938, and returned home to Miami. He practiced law for six months in his father's firm before he was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney. He was married in 1939 to Rosemary Townley, who gave birth to their first son, John, in 1941. During World War II Smathers served in the United States Marine Corps from 1942-45, including an 18-month rotation overseas in the South Pacific. His second son, Bruce, was born in 1943 while Smathers was overseas.

In 1946, Smathers was elected to the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, defeating long-standing incumbent Pat Cannon. While in the House, Smathers traveled extensively to Europe and Latin America, developing an interest in Latin American countries that would later become a central focus of his Senatorial career. Smathers also became friends with many people who would become prominent politicians, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald Ford. He became particularly close to Kennedy; they had adjacent offices while in the House together, and he served as a groomsman in Kennedy's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Smathers ran for the U.S. Senate in 1950 in a historic race against the incumbent, Claude Pepper. The 1950 Democratic primary election has long been considered one of the most contentious in Florida history. Smathers entered the race at the behest of President Truman who was angered by Pepper's efforts to remove him as the Democratic candidate in the 1948 election. Smathers focused on Pepper's foreign policy positions, particularly Pepper's failure to condemn Soviet postwar aggression. Smathers also criticized Pepper's support of universal health care and labor unions. Race factored into the campaign with both candidates accusing the other of being soft on segregation. Smathers defeated Pepper handily and entered the Senate in 1951.

Smathers served as the junior Senator from Florida for three terms until his retirement in 1968. Throughout his Senatorial career, he was recognized for his involvement with Latin American and Cuban issues. Smathers is credited as one of the first to push for U.S. involvement in Latin American countries as a preventative measure for stopping the spread of communism into the Western Hemisphere. He also was one of the first to raise alarms about Fidel Castro's government and Cuba's ties to the Soviet Union. Smathers sought to provide aid for the improvement of the infrastructure and quality of life in Latin American and Caribbean countries, arguing that their well-being and stability was beneficial to the U.S.

Although he was more moderate in many respects than other Southern Democrats, and despite his close friendships with Kennedy and other northern Democrats, Smathers did vote faithfully with the Southern bloc on most of the divisive social issues in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, Smathers signed the so-called "Southern Manifesto," which denounced the U.S. Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools racially. He voted consistently against meaningful civil rights legislation, and spoke in favor of segregation and states rights.

Smathers was known to friends and opponents as "Gorgeous George," and he was known as much for his ability to make friends and connections as he was for his work on the floor of the Senate. Although he was not a high-ranking member of any of the major Senate committees during this service, Smathers was successful in using his positions on committees such as Foreign Relations, Finance and Taxation, and Commerce to protect and expand Florida interests. He was a powerful advocate for the Florida sugar and citrus industries, particularly pertaining to trade and competition with Latin America. Smathers also served as chair of the Democratic Campaign Committee. In this capacity, he traveled around the country soliciting contributions to be used for various Senatorial campaigns.

During the 1960 presidential election, Smathers was placed in an interesting position when his majority leader in the Senate, Johnson, and his best friend in the Senate, Kennedy, both decided to run. Rather than having the two men potentially split the Florida vote, Smathers urged both men not to campaign in Florida and he entered the race as a candidate for the nomination. He was named as Florida's "favorite son" and received the votes of the Florida delegation at the National Democratic Convention during the first round of voting. When it became clear that Kennedy would get the nomination, he quickly bowed out and urged the delegation to vote for Kennedy. During the subsequent campaigning, Smathers managed Kennedy's campaign in the Southeast.

Smathers retired from politics in 1969, at the end of this his third term in the Senate. He resumed practicing law in Miami and Washington, D.C. He died on January 20, 2007.

 

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