Opinion Piece: Words and Voters: A History of Presumed Ignorance in Politics and How it Proved Helpful
By Theo Baker '22
Okay. Now that you’ve clicked on the article, I must preface my words by saying this is by no means a definitive guide to assumptions in politics. With that out of the way, it’s time to talk about George Smathers. A senator for 12 years, the Floridian became eventually well-known throughout Washington as a friend to presidents. His charm and wit gained him access to the inner circles of Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon, but perhaps most notable was his ascent to power in 1950.
Harry Truman was mad. In 1948 Claude Pepper, having been put forward as a possible Democratic presidential candidate, posed a significant challenge to Truman in his presidential bid. Although Pepper eventually withdrew, this feud led to the beginning, according to the New York Times, of “an election renowned for its flamboyant oratory, ideological ferocity and personal drama,” with Truman reportedly calling at-the-time Congressman Smathers to the White House to tell him to “beat that son-of-a-bitch Claude Pepper.” Having received a particularly energetic call-to-arms, the two-time House member decided to do everything in his power to win the 1950 Florida Senate Democratic nomination (tantamount to the Senate seat, as there was little Republican opposition).
Being the time of the Red Scare, Smathers leaned into the communism and African-American baiting tactics popularized by Joe McCarthy. He repeatedly attacked Pepper with accusations implying he was pro-Communist due to his left-leaning views on race and health care. But things really came to a head when Smathers delivered a few comments picked up by an April, 1950 article in Time and now infamous in American political lore (although perhaps only in lore, as there is no concrete evidence that Smathers ever voiced these specific words): “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? 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.”
While anyone with a dictionary can tell you that extroversion is being outgoing, thespianism is acting, nepotism is favoring a relative over someone else, and celibacy is abstaining from sex, Smathers calculated that these words would have a different impact on his rural, redneck audience. He took advantage of a presumed ignorance and lack of education in his audience and it worked (or at least failed to hinder him). “It was a campaign of vicious distortion,” Pepper said in an interview with the New York Times, “calling me 'Red Pepper,' calling me a Communist. That fitted right in, you see, with the McCarthyism that was sweeping the country.” His demagoguery — so contrary to the approach of integrity in words that childhood-friend-turned-Washington Post-publisher Philip Graham practiced — propelled him to a victory in the race, and led him down an anti-civil-rights, Vietnam-supporting path.
While George Smathers may only be one man, his actions were not so different from politicians at the time or even contemporary politicians. Misleading and misrepresentation in words is a common enough occurrence, and the support of George Smathers for 12 years shows that carefully calibrated lies can change the way voters think. I hate to say it, but Donald Trump is very similar in a lot of ways. He targets his lies to excite his fanbase (e.g. ‘I brought coal back’ to appease coal miners, ‘I’m building the wall because there’s an invasion coming’ to get anti-immigration people happy). The message here: lies change perceptions, and demagoguery even if you don’t really mean it are an unhappy part of politics.