Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator

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Claude Denson Pepper

Birthdate: (88)
Birthplace: Dudleyville, AL, USA
Death: May 30, 1989 (88)
Washington, District of Columbia, DC, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph Wheeler Pepper and Lena Corinne Pepper

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Immediate Family

About Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator

Claude Denson Pepper (September 8, 1900 – May 30, 1989) was an American politician of the Democratic Party, and a spokesman for left-liberalism and the elderly. In foreign policy he shifted from pro-Soviet in the 1940s to anti-Communist in the 1950s. He represented Florida in the United States Senate from November 4, 1936, to January 3, 1951, and the Miami area in the United States House of Representatives from January 3, 1963 until his death on May 30, 1989.

In 2000, the United States Postal Service issued a 33¢ Distinguished Americans series postage stamp honoring Pepper.

Early life

Born in Chambers County, Alabama, in a shack belonging to poverty-stricken sharecroppers, Pepper attended school in Camp Hill and became a schoolteacher in Dothan. He then worked in an Ensley steel mill before beginning studies at the University of Alabama. While in college he joined the Army for World War I and served in the Student Army Training Corps, with the war ending before he could see active service. After graduating in 1921 Pepper attended Harvard Law School, receiving his degree in 1924. He briefly taught law at the University of Arkansas and then moved to Perry, Florida, where he opened a law practice. He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1929. After being defeated for reelection he moved his law practice to Tallahassee, the state capital.

U.S. Senate

Pepper lost in the Democratic primary for the United States Senate in 1934, but won in a 1936 special election following the death of Senator Duncan Fletcher. In the Senate, Pepper became a leading New Dealer and close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was unusually articulate and intellectual, and, collaborating with labor unions, he was often the leader of the liberal-left forces in the Senate. His reelection in a heavily fought primary in 1938 solidified his reputation as the most prominent liberal in Congress. He sponsored the Lend-Lease Act. Because of the power of the Conservative Coalition, he usually lost on domestic policy. He was, however, more successful in promoting an international foreign policy based on friendship with the Soviet Union. He gave lukewarm support to Harry S. Truman in 1948, saying the Democrats should nominate Dwight D. Eisenhower instead; but he did not support his friend Henry A. Wallace that year. He was re-elected in 1944, but lost his bid for a third full term in 1950 by a margin of over 60,000 votes. Ed Ball, a power in state politics who had broken with Pepper, financed his opponent, U.S. Representative George A. Smathers. A former supporter of Pepper, Smathers repeatedly attacked "Red Pepper" for having far-left sympathies, condemning both his support for universal health care and his alleged support for the Soviet Union. Pepper had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1945 and, after meeting Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, declared he was "a man Americans could trust." Because of his left-of-center sympathies and his bright red hair, he became widely nicknamed "Red Pepper".

At a speech made on November 11, 1946, before a pro-Soviet group known as Ambijan, which supported the creation of a Soviet Jewish republic in the far east of the USSR, Pepper told his listeners that "Probably nowhere in the world are minorities given more freedom, recognition and respect than in the Soviet Union [and] nowhere in the world is there so little friction, between minority and majority groups, or among minorities." Democracy was "growing" in that country, he added, and he asserted that the Soviets were making such contributions to democracy "that many who decry it might well imitate and emulate rather than despair."

Two years later, on November 21, 1948, speaking to the same group, he again lauded the Soviet Union, calling it a nation which has recognized the dignity of all people, a nation wherein discrimination against anybody on account of race is a crime, and which was in fundamental sympathy with the progress of mankind. After his defeat in 1950, Pepper returned to law practice in Miami and Washington, failing in a comeback bid to regain a Senate seat in the 1958 Democratic primary in which he challenged his former colleague, Spessard Holland. However, Pepper did carry eleven counties, including populous Dade County, where he later staged a remarkable comeback.

U.S. House

In 1962 Pepper was elected to the United States House of Representatives from a newly created liberal district around Miami and Miami Beach established due to population growth in the area, becoming one of very few former United States Senators in modern times (the only other examples being James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr. and Alton Lennon) to be elected to the House after their Senate careers. He remained there until his death in 1989, rising to chair of the powerful Rules Committee in 1983. Despite a reputation as a leftist in his youth, Pepper turned staunchly anti-communist in the last third of his life, opposing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and supporting aid to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

In the early 1970s, Pepper chaired the Joint House-Senate Committee on Crime; then, in 1977, he became chair of the new House Select Committee on Aging, which became his base as he emerged as the nation's foremost spokesman for the elderly, especially regarding Social Security programs. He succeeded in strengthening the Medicare. In the 1980s he worked with Alan Greenspan in a major reform of the Social Security system that maintained its solvency by slowly raising the retirement age, thus cutting benefits for workers retiring in their mid-60s, and in 1986 he obtained the passage of a federal law that abolished most mandatory retirement ages. In his later years, Pepper (who customarily began each day by eating a bowl of tomato soup with crackers) sported a replaced hip and hearing aids in both ears, but continued to remain an important and often lionized figure in the House.

Pepper became known as the "grand old man of Florida politics". He was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938 and 1983. Republicans often joked that he and Tip O'Neill were the only Democrats who really drove President Reagan crazy.

On May 26, 1989, Pepper was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush and passed away in his sleep four days later.

When he died, his body lay in state for two days under the Rotunda of the United States Capitol; he was the 26th American so honored.

A number of places in Florida are named for Pepper, including the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University (housing a think tank devoted to intercultural dialogue in conjunction with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and an institute on aging)) and the Claude Pepper Federal Building in Miami, as well as several public schools. Large sections of US 27 in Florida are named Claude Pepper Memorial Highway. Since 2002, the Democratic Executive Committee (DEC) of Lake County has held an annual "Claude Pepper Dinner" to honor Pepper's tireless support for senior citizens. He also has the Claude Pepper Building No. 31 named for him at the National Institutes of Health, Located in Bethesda, Maryland. Pepper's wife Mildred was well known and respected for her humanitarian work as well. She was also honored with a number of places named in Florida.[citation needed]

After Pepper's death, Bradenton, Florida actor Kelly Reynolds portrayed Pepper in several performances held at area schools, libraries and nursing homes.

Red Accusations and hoax "Redneck Speech" in 1950

In 1950 President Harry Truman called George Smathers into a meeting at the White House and reportedly said "I want you to do me a favor. I want you to beat that son-of-a-bitch Claude Pepper." Pepper had been part of an unsuccessful 1948 campaign to "dump Truman" as the Democratic presidential nominee, and George Smathers had been his manager and pupil. Smathers broke with Pepper and ran against him in the Democratic primary (which at the time in Florida was tantamount to election, the Republican Party still being in infancy there). The contest was extremely heated, and revolved around policy issues, especially charges that Pepper represented the far left and was too supportive of Stalin. Pepper's opponents circulated widely a 49-page booklet titled The Red Record of Senator Claude Pepper.

Part of American political lore is the Smathers "redneck speech," which Smathers reportedly delivered to a poorly educated audience. The "speech" was never given; it was a hoax dreamed up by one reporter. Time Magazine, during the campaign, falsely claimed that Smathers said 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, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, 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 Smathers campaign denied his having made the speech, as did the reporters who covered his campaign, but the hoax followed Smathers to his death.

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Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator's Timeline

September 8, 1900
Dudleyville, AL, USA
May 30, 1989
Age 88
Washington, District of Columbia, DC, USA