Dirty Politics: Smathers, Pepper, and Quasi Malediction in American Political Folklore

Bonnie Taylor-Blake

For more than 60 years, American political folklore has featured the sly candidate who resorts to using complex words he believes his listeners unfamiliar with in order to create doubts about his opponent’s character. While the speaker never directly criticizes his adversary, his choice of words invariably portrays his foe as being, at best, vaguely sexually improper, and, at worst, a pervert.

The most famous use of this device, at least according to political legend, occurred in the early spring of 1950: it is said that during the Florida Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate, Rep. George Smathers delivered a campaign speech crafted to confuse backwoods voters and malign by innuendo the character of Claude Pepper, Smathers’s former mentor and then opponent. In this case, however, political legend is sexier than political reality: as others have already noted, Smathers never delivered the fabled speech on the stump, nor did he have a major part in crafting its text.

On the other hand, Smathers’s alleged speech – described in the decades since as both an innovation in sly political wit and a noteworthy display of questionable campaign tactics – serves as a useful example of word play by then already present in political anecdote and popular jokelore.

 

The Shameless Extrovert

On March 19, 1950, the following appeared in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, newspaper,

BEST STORY out of Washington we have heard this spring concerns the senatorial primary race in Florida between Claude Pepper and George Smathers. Senator Pepper’s supporters are reported to have launched a whispering campaign among the “crackers” that Rep. Smathers is – sh-shuh – an extrovert. (“Around the Town,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette)

By the first of April, 1950, just a month before primary balloting was to take place in Florida, nationally syndicated columnists presented an expanded, but notably contradictory version.

The political enemies of Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, are said to have hit on a remarkable device. Throughout the Florida backwoods, according to a story going the Washington Rounds, the unfortunate senator is being described in the following spine-chilling terms:

“Why, J. Edgar Hoover, the whole FBI, and every member of Congress knows that Claude Pepper is” – breathless pause – “a shameless extrovert. Moreover, there is reason to believe he practices nepotism with his sister-in-law, and that his sister has been a thespian in sinful New York. Finally – and this is hard to believe – it is well known that before Pepper was married he regularly practiced” – a more breathless pause – “celibacy.”

As far as is known, although he is certainly uninhibited, and was certainly once a bachelor, the senator has never employed his sister-in-law, and his sister has never been an actress. Yet denials will do no good. And among Florida voters with limited vocabularies, there is said to be much honest indignation at these horrifying revelations. The Pepper forces are seriously worried. (Alsop, 1 April 1950; see also Note 1, below)

How big words can be used by politicians to confuse the public is well illustrated by a story going the rounds in the Florida Democratic primary campaign. Rep. George A. Smathers is in a nip-and-tuck fight there to take the U.S. Senate seat away from Claude Pepper. Opponents of Pepper have started a whispering campaign against him. “Senator Pepper,” they confide, “is not only an extrovert, but he also practices nepotism.” If passed along in just the right tone of voice this sounds terrible to the average Cracker, already badly confused by stories of Washington “preverts” and “communism.” (Edson, 3 April 1950)

Within days these lines were attributed not to behind-the-scenes strategists, but to the candidate himself.

In one of the backward states there’s a bitter political fight going on, where one of the candidates is stirring up hatred for his rival this way:

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “my opponent has stooped to such low tactics that I must reveal to you that he is, secretly, an EXTROVERT. Not only that but he practices HUMANISM! But the worst thing is this, much as I hesitate to say it: His wife was once a THESPIAN in Greenwich Village.”

I hear that this may win the campaign for him. (Wilson, 11 April 1950)

Smathers was capable of going to any length in campaigning, but he indignantly denied that he had gone as far as a story printed in northern newspapers. The story wouldn’t die, nonetheless, and it deserved not to. According to the yarn, Smathers had a little speech for cracker voters, who were presumed not to know what the words meant except that they must be something bad. The speech went like this: “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.” (“Anything Goes,” Time Magazine, 17 April 1950)

By April 26 columnist George Dixon returned to the version told a month earlier in Cedar Rapids, adding that “[r]eal retributive justice has triumphed. A political mud-slinger has been smacked square in the puss with his own mire.” Dixon asserted that it was William Daffron, Claude Pepper’s publicist, who came up with the gag as a means of poking fun at the character of Smathers himself. Somehow, however, the roles were reversed and soon “[e]verybody who fell for the thing passed it on, [and] had Smathers as the perpetrator and Pepper as the goat” (Dixon, 1950; see also Note 2).

 

Vacillatin’ on the Senate Floor

In countless interviews during his political career, Smathers denied the twin charges that he had delivered these lines in stump speeches before supposedly ignorant voters and that this device helped him to defeat Pepper, despite popular conviction that the assumed delivery of these quips made him look “a bright and ingenious young man” and that he had done “his level best to make Pepper a pervert by assonance” (Buckley and Bozzell, 1954). In mid-November, after Smathers’s landslide victory over Republican John P. Booth, a columnist recounted the tale and presented the Senator-elect’s take on this alleged bit of character assassination.

Senator Pepper’s own press agent, during the primary campaign that Spring, told a Washington columnist that Senator Pepper had made these charges against George Smathers in the cracker districts at the fork of the Florida creeks. But the Washington pundit, in the confusion so often enveloping the capital, somehow got the names switched and credited Mr. Smathers with making the charges against Senator Pepper.

But said Senator Smathers, who has a pretty wife and two sons to protect him in Washington, he was often tempted to add to the legend by thundering from the stump: “And the last time I saw my worthy opponent, he was vacillatin’ all over the floor of the United States Senate.” (Robb, 14 November 1950)

Howell Raines, writing in 1983 for The New York Times, reported that while Smathers vehemently denied ever using the lines in any speech, the then-retired senator himself “said that these wisecracks became the running jokes of the campaign and that [reporter William H. Lawrence of The Times] kept him posted on the latest versions.” Raines further noted that, “William Fokes, a Tallahassee lawyer who was Mr. Pepper’s administrative assistant at the time, also confirmed that reporters were passing around these jokes.” Raines observed that everyone he interviewed, from both camps, was of the opinion that Smathers had never uttered any of these quips in any stump speech. Raines went on, however, that

there was evidence that once the jokes got started, the Smathers organization helped spread them. The idea was not to mislead ignorant voters with fancy words but to undermine respect for Mr. Pepper by making him an object of ridicule in the conservative Panhandle of northern Florida, recalled Daniel T. Crisp, a Jacksonville public relations man who worked in Mr. Smathers’s behalf.

“It was actively used because it was funny,” said Mr. Crisp. Two years before the election, he recalled, he was hired by Edward Ball, manager of the DuPont interests in Florida, to rally the conservative vote against Mr. Pepper. The jokes about celibacy and matriculation were part of an arsenal of anti-Pepper humor. (Raines, 1983)

Several years after his interview with Raines, Smathers spoke at length about the “thespian speech” with Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie (1989).

One of the things that didn’t happen, however, was that story that I went around in West Florida saying that [Pepper’s] sister was a thespian, that [Pepper] practiced celibacy, that he vacillated on the Senate floor. All this stuff. You know, actually, it’s funny. It’s so funny that that’s why it keeps getting circulated. But it’s a kind of an insult to the people of Florida to think that you can tell them that kind of junky stuff and get away with it. […] In the state in that campaign there were 38 daily newspapers, 36 of them endorsed me. They would not have endorsed me had I been a little snotty-nosed guy running around saying ugly things. They endorsed me. I won by almost 2 to 1. That was dirty if you lost. I offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who could prove those things were really said, and no one ever collected it.

Bob Fokes, who was Pepper’s administrative assistant, can tell you exactly where it got started, up here at the National Press Club in Washington. They had a group of reporters, it was a very colorful and important campaign at that time, and a group of reporters would follow Pepper for two or three days and then they’d switch off and follow me. Each of us had our sound trucks and all the other stuff. They began to exchange views, take off and come back here to Washington, to the National Press Club, and sit up there and talk to each other.

“Did you hear what Smathers said about Pepper this week?” “Did you hear what so and so said about him?” You know, back and forth. They began to make this sort of very clever and very funny, but it really did not happen that way.

Two months before Smathers sat down with Ritchie, however, a University of Florida alumnus claimed in a letter to The New York Times that during the 1950 campaign he heard those phrases delivered “in multiple, statewide broadcast campaign speeches” (Clarke, 1989; see also Note 3). Yet although he went on to observe that “the episodes happened, and somebody must have recordings of them,” no transcript or recording of a speech containing this text has surfaced. Further, as Brian Crispell points out in his biography of Smathers (1999), no one has found confirmation in contemporaneous reports in any Florida newspapers following the candidates that Smathers ever accused Pepper of indulging in celibacy before marriage or having a thespian-sister.

It bears noting that the placement into the political realm of a linguistic technique dripping with sexual innuendo did not begin with that 1950 primary race. Those campaign followers and behind-the-scenes strategists responsible for crafting lines that, when pieced together, would become the text of a never-delivered speech, were likely influenced by political anecdotes already in circulation.

 

Sly Rhetoricians Confuse Plebians with Weighty Words of Little Meaning

– Headline, The Coshocton [Ohio] Times, 3 April 1950

The artfulness of the “thespian speech” relies on a device identified by D.G. Kehl (1983) as “quasi malediction – [the use of] fancy but unfamiliar, sinister- or risqué-sounding words somewhere between paronomasia and malapropism,”

Like the pun and the double-entendre, quasi malediction is based on similarity of sound between two words with vastly different meanings, but, unlike the pun, it is less a play on words than a confusion between words: linguistic malentendu. Like malapropism, quasi malediction involves similarity in sound between words, but, unlike the malapropism, it is not used incorrectly, nor does it express an untruth. Rather, the confusion results from a kind of linguistic short-circuiting through phonetic association. […] Unlike the punster, who relies on his audience’s awareness of the two words’ denotations, the user of quasi malediction relies on his audience’s ignorance of the denotation and confusion over connotation through phonetic association.

In the summer of 1940, Vance Randolph encountered a political joke rooted in this device, a theme Gershon Legman would later dub “omne ignotum pro obscœno (“everything unknown is taken as obscene”; Legman, 1968). Randolph wrote that the anecdote was told to him by a former Missouri legislator who added that “it is only a ‘slight exaggeration’ of something that really happened at Jefferson City [Missouri] in the 1930’s.”

There was a fellow from Stone county that could hardly read and write, but he got into the Legislature, and he voted to give a lot of money for the State University. The other members was against it, and they told him the College is a terrible immoral place. “Why,” says one fellow, “men and women students matriculate in broad daylight, right before everybody!” Another man says that “the boys and girls use the same curriculum, and they don’t care who knows it, neither!” The Stone county man says he never heard nothing like that before. “That ain’t the worst of it,” says a legislator from Springfield. “Every one of them girl students is forced to show her thesis to the professor, or else they won’t give her no grades!” The man from Stone county stood up. “That’s enough for me, gentlemen,” says he. “To hell with such a college! I move we don’t give ‘em another goddam cent!” (Randolph, 1965)

The same anecdote told in New York in 1937, however, placed the event elsewhere,

They tell me (and vouch for its veracity) a lovely little story about the Kentucky Senate. There was a bill under discussion proposing aid for Kentucky University. First one hill-billy Senator rose and said: “Do you know that boys and girls attend the same college? And do you know that they both share the same curriculum? And furthermore do you know that they matriculate together? I’m against that bill!” (Schaeffer, 1937)

The joke also made the rounds in Washington in late summer, 1937, during Claude Pepper’s first term in the U.S. Senate. Harlan Miller’s “Over the Coffee” column, which appeared in The Washington Post, made note of a “[p]opular anecdote on the Hill”: the story was “[a]bout the Mississippi legislator who was opposed to co-ed schools because the boys and girls matriculate together and use the same curriculum” (Miller, 1937). In 1949, just a year before the thespian speech emerged, lines from this anecdote were so popular that they popped up, with modifications, in everything from a display ad for Gimbels department store (see Note 4) to, apparently, Bernard Malamud’s first lecture at Oregon State University (see Note 5).

A closer political cousin to the thespian speech, however, was also being told in the 1940s.

 

My Opponent is a Sexagenarian

Precisely the same technique, they tell me, was used with success in a prairie election a few years ago, when a clever young politician went about the constituency saying that his opponent was a sexagenarian. This was perfectly true, for the opponent had passed the age of sixty years; but the electors, who had never heard the word before, imagined that the candidate was enslaved by some hideous sexual vice, and he was defeated. (Hutchinson, 1943)

One of [Canadian journalist and newspaper editor John W. Dafoe’s] amusing yarns is of the election which was lost in Manitoba, many years ago, because his opponent started a whispering campaign to the effect that the candidate was sexagenarian! (Eggleston, 1944)

The justice of the peace had been in office a long time and was past 60 years of age. His young opponent, a college graduate, went around and murmured in the voters’ ears, “Did you know that my opponent is a sexagenarian?”, emphasizing the first syllable in a sinister way – and the shocked voters elected the young fellow overwhelmingly. (House, 1945)

Unlike its Smathers-Pepper counterpart, this campaign anecdote is partially rooted in fact.

In the fall of 1920 James F. Sweeney, the incumbent from the Eleventh Hampden District (Holyoke) to the Massachusetts House, distributed a circular to voters that explained why they should favor him over newcomer John A. Callahan (Howard, 1922). Sweeney wrote of several legislative matters he believed of concern to Holyoke voters, one of which, “Chamberlain’s Sex-Hygiene Bill,” he felt of special interest to women voters. He noted that passage of the bill would mean “compulsory teaching of sex-hygiene and birth control to children, ten to twelve years old, against the parents’ wishes” and asserted that the act “would take the child away from the parent and put them under the direct supervision of the State” and “disrupt the morals of your children.” Sweeney announced his bitter opposition to this bill and then warned the electorate,

My opponent, who was elected to the office of school committeemen last year, and has two more years to serve, openly boasts that he will not resign if he is elected as representative. My opponent is also a sexagenarian, and in my opinion would not be able to serve your district properly.

Callahan, after losing the election by a six-point margin, contested the outcome before the Massachusetts House Committee on Elections with the claim that Sweeney had intentionally misrepresented him as an advocate of the teaching of “sex hygiene” in public schools. The Committee, which issued its findings on 27 January 1921, described Callahan’s case.

The petitioner contended that the sitting member inserted in said circular a section headed, “Chamberlain’s Sex-Hygiene Bill,” which heading appeared in prominent black type, which in fact, the actual title of said Chamberlain’s bill was, “To Provide Physical Training in the Public Schools and Normal Schools,” and that near the end of said section the following words were inserted: “My opponent is also a sexagenarian, and in my opinion would not be able to serve your district properly,” and that as a result of the sitting member’s characterization of the title of said act, together with the use of the word “sexagenarian,” printed in italics, said circular was intended to and did in fact place him in a false position before the people of said district and influenced a large number of voters against him, and that the voters concluded from the reading of said circular that a sexagenarian was a person who believed in teaching the sex relations to the pupils in the public schools.

Committee members, however, were unconvinced.

The committee have carefully considered the facts, together with the exhibits introduced and the arguments of counsel, and find that the petitioner is sixty-two years of age, and that the word “sexagenarian” is defined in the Century Dictionary as meaning “A person sixty years of age; or between sixty and seventy.” The committee also finds that the petitioner has not maintained his contention that the voters of said district were influenced or misled by said circular to the extent that the result of said election was thereby affected. To assume that they were so influenced or misled would constitute a denial of the possession of ordinary intelligence on the part of said voters of the Eleventh Hampden District. The committee have therefore come to the conclusion that the election in the case at hand was the expression of the will of the majority of voters at said election in the Eleventh Hampden District, and that the will of the people thus manifested should prevail.

Just a month after Election Day, several newspapers – even ones published as far away as Kansas City – correctly reported the particulars of Callahan’s charge (see Note 6 for examples). Readers of The Chicago Daily Tribune, however, apparently unaware of the debate in Massachusetts over sex education, were given a less-than-serious treatment of Callahan’s charge in the paper’s lighthearted “Line O’ Type or Two” column,

“COMPLAINS He Was Called Sexagenarian – Candidate Says Many Voters Thought It Had to Do With Sex.” – [Headline in the] Boston Herald.

Flattered, but unappreciative.

By February 1921, The Wall Street Journal had moved the election (now between unnamed contestants) out of western Massachusetts and into Boston (see Note 7). In October, 1924, Beatrice Houghton presented an entirely fictional account: “The Charge against Culberton,” where “sexagenarian” is assumed to be vaguely lascivious, mentioned neither sex hygiene nor election location. By the 1940s, just a few years before Smathers and Pepper battled one another in Florida, the anecdote remained stripped both of its placement in Massachusetts and its subtle linking of “sexagenarian” to the teaching of sex education.

 

Advocating Social Intercourse in Mixed Company

Perhaps the most significant change in how the thespian speech has been described over the past 50 years is the incorporation of “quasi maledictive” phrases not appearing in Time magazine’s April, 1950 version. For example, Richard Lederer’s obviously humorous and extended treatment of the anecdote (2003) includes the charge that Pepper “vacillated once on the Senate Floor,” a quip Smathers himself delivered with a wink in November, 1950, six months after his race against Pepper ended (Robb, 1950). Lederer, however, also include phrases that had appeared in Bill Garvin’s “Guaranteed Effective All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech,” a piece written for MAD Magazine in 1970.

Garvin’s parody did much to popularize the tradition of quasi malediction in political folklore; as its predecessors had, it included everything dirty one could say about one’s opponent without really saying it. Although Garvin’s speech, crafted for any candidate’s use, includes the now-familiar “thespian,” “admitted sexagenarian,” and “nepotism,” it also features charges such as “[h]e perambulated his infant on the street,” “attempted to interest a 13-year-old girl in philately,” “declared himself in favor of more homogeneity on college campuses,” and “advocated social intercourse in mixed company – and has taken part in such gatherings himself.” Garvin’s text inadvertently strengthened the belief that Smathers had delivered such a speech: some current versions of the text of Smather’s supposed speech frequently include Garvin’s use of innuendo surrounding the term “homosapien.”

* * * * *

Today, analyses of that 1950 primary battle between Smathers and Pepper, commentaries on political rhetoric, and biographies of the late senators still frequently reference the slyly crafted lines that became political legend. Not surprisingly, Pepper’s loss by a 10 point margin is often wrongly attributed solely to the presumed effectiveness of a speech never delivered; in reality, however, Smathers succeeded in ousting Pepper from the Senate because his team created the impression that “Red Pepper,” the New Deal incumbent, had communist leanings and advocated for civil rights.

Although Pepper’s accomplishments in his long years in the U.S. Senate and House helped suppress his association with the rumored thespian speech, anecdotes involving campaign hijinks still dog his political legacy. The Claude Pepper Museum, located on the campus of Florida State University, devotes space to the thespian speech (see Note 8), reproducing the text as it appeared in Time, but leaves open the question of whether Smathers actually delivered those lines on the stump: “This exhibit features a speech printed in TIME magazine in 1950 and attributed to the George Smathers campaign. Mr. Smathers now denies that he made the speech.”

Obituaries of Pepper, who passed away in 1989, often made reference to him as the victim of smear tactics, despite the best efforts of Bruce Smathers, Senator Smathers’s youngest son. For example, The Washington Post‘s next-day obituary of Pepper (Barnes, 1989) reproduced the speech, attributing it to Time, but weakly concluded that “Smathers insists he never made any such statement.” A week later, however, The Post reported that “[a] week before Florida Rep. Claude Pepper died on May 30, the son of his most celebrated political opponent, former senator George Smathers, sent letters to top national news organizations to urge them not to mention the bitter 1950 Senate contest in Pepper’s obituary” (Randolph, 1989):

“I would request that in praising Congressman Pepper [in commentaries on his life] that you do not inaccurately criticize” Smathers’s successful campaign to unseat Pepper with “untruths that distort history.” [...] [Bruce Smathers] also insisted that the most famous yarn out of the 1950 race was just that – a yarn. [...] “It is a myth and deserves to be treated as such,” Bruce Smathers wrote. “Please do not report this untruth.”

[Smathers] conceded that news organizations might nevertheless want to write about the famous contest. “But, if you must,” Bruce Smathers added, “I suggest the following phraseology. ‘[Pepper’s] liberalism and idealism led him out of the mainstream of his Florida constituency, and he was defeated in a hard-fought and bitter campaign in 1950.’”

Bruce Smathers said he does not recall how many letters he sent. “I just wanted to make sure these statements would not be repeated,” he said. “I just want to set the record straight.”

Although George Smathers outlived his former adversary by nearly two decades, he had a more difficult time overcoming his association with the thespian speech. Within just a few days of Pepper’s death, for example, New York Times columnist Edwin Yoder (1989) noted that “Smathers [had] attacked Pepper as ‘a shameless extrovert’ who had once practiced ‘celibacy’ and whose sister was a ‘thespian.’ (Astoundingly, Smathers later denied having said any of this. He denied his only distinction in politics!)” After Smathers’s death on January 20, 2007, nearly every obituary appearing in national newspapers and news magazines mentioned the thespian speech. Though most noted that Smathers had denied making those comments, his association with this bit of political folklore featured prominently in tributes to him.

Today there is little doubt that the never-delivered thespian speech, that amalgamation of quasi-maledictive quips, was principally the product of behind-the-scenes staffers and journalists following the Smathers/Pepper race. When we place it in the context of political folklore, we see that its creation was likely influenced by political anecdotes that preceded it. Little known at the time to wags following that 1950 campaign was how they had crafted, as Brian Crispell put it, “the most famous thing George Smathers never said.”

 

References

“Anything Goes,” Time Magazine, 17 April 1950; http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,805369,00.html

“Around the Town” column, The Cedar Rapids [Iowa] Gazette, 19 March 1950, Section 3, p. 2.

Alsop, Stewart, “The Larger Picture,” printed in The Kingsport [Tennessee] News, 1 April 1950, p. 4.

Barnes, Bart, “Claude Pepper, Crusader for Elderly, Dies,” The Washington Post, 31 May 1989, pp. A1, A14.

Buckley William F., Jr. and Bozzell, L. Brent, Jr., McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning, pp. 304-305, Chicago: Regnery, 1954.

Clarke, Gerald M., “Earwitness to Campaign Slymouth,” The New York Times, 13 June 1989, p. 26.

Crispell, Brian L., Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America, pp. 65-67, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Dixon, George, “Washington Scene,” printed in The Dunkirk [New York] Observer, 26 April 1950, p. 6.

Edson, Peter, “Washington Column,” printed in The Coshocton [Ohio] Times, 3 April 1950, p. 4.

Eggleston, Wilfrid, “J.W. Dafoe’s Recollections,” The Lethbridge Herald, 10 August 1944, p. 4.

Garvin, Bill. “Guaranteed Effective All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech,” MAD Magazine, December, 1970; see http://gis.washington.edu/phurvitz/outgoing/bustagut/Non-SlanderousPoliticalSmearSpeech.htm

Houghton, Beatrice Y., “The Charge against Culberton,” reprinted in The Nashua [Iowa] Reporter, 8 October 1924, p. 7.

House, Boyce, Texas: Proud and Loud, p. 40, San Antonio: Naylor & Co., 1945.

Howard, Paul D. (ed.), Reports of Contested Election Cases in the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the Year 1903-1922, pp. 69-72, Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co, 1922; viewable via Google Books (24 August 2009).

Hutchinson, Bruce, “The Technique of the Sneer,” The Winnipeg Free Press, 5 April 1943, p. 11.

Kehl, D.G., “Quasi Malediction: the Case of Linguistic Malentendu,” Verbatim 10(1): 9-10, 1983.

Lederer, Richard, The Cunning Linguist: Ribald Riddles, Lascivious Limericks, Carnal Corn, and Other Good, Clean Dirty Fun!, pp. 223-226, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.

Legman, Gershon, Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (First Series), pp. 148-149, New York: Grove Press, 1968.

“Line O’ Type or Two,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, 12 December 1920, p. A6.

Miller, Harlan, “Over the Coffee,” The Washington Post, 11 August 1937, p. 15.

Raines, Howell, “Legendary Campaign: Pepper vs. Smathers in ’50,” The New York Times, 24 February 1983, p. B8.

Randolph, Eleanor, “Media Notes,” The Washington Post, 7 June 1989, p. C12.

Randolph, Vance, Hot Springs and Hell; and other Folk Jests and Anecdotes from the Ozarks, “To Hell with the College,” pp. 106-107; Note, p. 236; Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1965.

Ritchie, Donald A., George A. Smathers, United States Senator from Florida, 1951-1969, Interview #1: The Road to Congress (Tuesday, August 1, 1989); pp. 26-27; http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Smathers_interview_1.pdf

Robb, Inez, “Assignment America,” printed in The Daily Courier [Connellsville, PA], 14 November 1950, p. 8.

Schaeffer, Amy, “Sixteen,” The Barnard [College] Bulletin [New York], 5 March 1937, p. 2.

Wilson, Earl, “The Man of the Hour (After Midnight),” printed in The Syracuse Herald-Journal, 11 April 1950, p. 2.

Yoder, Edwin M., “Pepper’s Two Careers,” The Washington Post, 4 June 1989, p. B7.

 

Notes

1. Thirty years after rumors of this speech hit Washington and beyond, Sarah Pepper Willis, Pepper’s younger sister, identified herself for The Washington Post as “the notorious thespian from wicked New York,” noting that she had been an actress at one point: “I minored in drama and majored in English, and I’ve been on the stage from the time I was 2 years old.” (From Joseph McLellan, “The Father of the House,” The Washington Post, 30 July 1980, p. B3.) Her obituary, printed in newspapers across Florida in late December, 1987, upheld her interest in acting.

2. A further excerpt from George Dixon’s column, “The Washington Scene,” 26 April 1950:

Pepper publicist, William Daffron, was in the bar at the National Press club a few weeks ago and began telling a batch of cronies of a wonderful idea he had for a “whispering” campaign. “The Florida crackers,” he told his listeners, “don’t know any big words. Senator Pepper could use a batch of harmless words and those dumbbells would think he was accusing Smathers of unspeakable depravity.”

Daffron’s listeners chuckled mightily at the thought. They fell into the spirit of the thing and began offering suggestions. They finally agreed that “extrovert,” “thespian” and “nepotism” were the most suggestive of the lot.

They succeeded in getting the “priceless joke” whispered around all right, but in some manner which is driving poor Daffron daffy, it got all twisted.

3. “Naked Sesquipedialians,” an item that appeared in “Topics of the Times” in The New York Times (1 June 1989, p. A22), not only prompted Gerald Clarke’s letter (Clarke, above), but also drew the following information from letter-writer Blanca Del Rio (“Buchan the Source?”, 13 June 1989, p. 26):

With regard to your Topics item of June 1: I would like to quote the following from [Scottish writer] John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages” (Houghton Mifflin, 1925). The speaker is Sandy Arbuthnot.

“I might be bored in Parliament,” he reflected, “but I should love the rough-and-tumble of an election. I only once took part in one, and I discovered surprising gifts as a demagogue, and made a speech in our little town which is still talked about. The chief row was about Irish home rule, and I thought I’d better have a whack at the Pope. Has it ever struck you, Dick, that ecclesiastical language has the most sinister sound? I knew some of the words, though not their meaning, but I knew my audience would be just as ignorant. So I had a magnificent peroration. ‘Will you, men of Kilclavers,’ I asked, ‘endure to see a chasuble set up in your marketpace? Will you have your daughters sold into simony? Will you have celibacy practicised in the public streets?’ Gad, I had them all on their feet bellowing ‘Never!’”

I had thought Buchan was only funning, and had no idea someone adapted the idea to modern use. Life plagiarizing art?

4. Text from Gimbels display advertisement, The New York Times, 14 August 1949, p. 72.

“co-ed colleges?’ “Devil’s work! They take decent boys and girls, said the old lad, “make them matriculate together — and even let them use the same curriculum!” Sure and he’s got a point. But with 480 co-ed colleges dotting the smirking face of this nation, with some 585,431 wimmen shamefully lurking with the lads in same, leave us face it. Matriculate together they will, says Gimbels — so you gals might as well relax and enjoy it. You want no mis-mating of clothes, no color schemes gang awry. You want to dress, and dress your best for every blessed minute you use the same curriculum together. That’s where Gimbels steps in. We’ve corduroy suits, dresses, jumpers, skirts, toppers that fit right in with the he-she campus.

5. Bernard Malamud is reported to have made use of this joke in 1949, on his first day of teaching at Oregon State University, telling students that it “has been brought to my attention that many of you people here today are practicing celibacy. I have nothing against this practice and will not penalize you for it. […] I have documents in my possession that show that each of you [in the back of the classroom] matriculated within the last two weeks. One as recently as this morning.” Reported in Philip Davis, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007; p. 91), taken from an article appearing in The Salem [Oregon] Statesman in February, 1983.

6. Published descriptions of the Callahan v. Sweeney race, 1920-1921.

SCENTS AN ELECTION COUP; Voters Didn’t Fancy Electing a “Sexagenarian” to Legislature.

The Kansas City [Missouri] Time, 3 December 1920, p. 1

HOLYOKE, MASS., Dec 3 – John A. Callahan, defeated candidate for the state legislature, thinks his opponent, James. J. [sic] Sweeney, put something over on him – and the voters of his district as well. It appears that Sweeney circulated a circular in the campaign, in which reference was made to the Chamberlain bill, with the statement that if the bill passed, sex hygiene would be taught in schools. Just below was inserted the startling information that Callahan was a “sexagenarian.”

Many of the honest voters of Holyoke didn’t like the looks of the word “sexagenarian,” according to Callahan, and big defeat ensued. So Callahan will contest the election.

“Sex Hygiene” in Politics

The Lexington [Kentucky] Herald, 30 April 1921, p. 4.

The elections committee of the House of Representatives in Massachusetts was recently confronted with a distinct innovation in political bullyragging. John A. Callahan, of Holyoake [sic], was charged publicly by his opponent, James F. Sweeney, with being a “sexagenarian.”

The two men, says the Boston Herald, were both seeking a seat in the lower branch of the Legislature. Callahan’s contest contains a circular letter sent out by Sweeney in which the latter, after setting forth his own vigorous opposition to the teaching of sex hygiene in public schools, refers to his opponent as a “sexagenarian.” Callahan alleges the term was not designed to call attention to his age, but to impress upon voters that he favored the teaching of sex hygiene.

7. The Wall Street Journal noted (“A Political Dictionary-Maker,” 5 February 1921, p. 2),

In these days, the man who tells a direct lie is a clumsy operator, take it from a successful Boston ward politician. This man, who recently ran for and won election to public office from one of the more congested Boston districts, played on the religious and class prejudices of his public by vigorously attacking the teaching of sex hygiene in public schools. This was very popular card, although his opponent had never advocated such education.

Then this astute student of human nature followed his attack on sex hygiene instruction by denouncing his opponent as a “sexagenarian,” which of course he was, being sixty years old.

The public “bit,” taking it for granted that “sex,” in some unlovely form was part of his platform. They defeated the luckless opponent, and he is now gravely contesting the election on the ground that he was somehow slandered!

8. http://www.claudepepperfoundation.org/museum/site/exhibit22b.cfm

© Bonnie Taylor-Blake, 2009

1 Comment

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One response to “Dirty Politics: Smathers, Pepper, and Quasi Malediction in American Political Folklore

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