The Book of the Week is “Pepper, Eyewitness to a Century” by Claude Denson Pepper With Hays Gorey, published in 1987.
Pepper, the oldest of four children, was born in September 1900 in rural Alabama to a Baptist, farming family. In 1928, he ran for the office of Florida state representative. He got permission from a competing candidate in his own Democratic party to be listed as a second choice on the ballot, and got elected.
In 1933, hankering for higher office, Pepper traveled around Florida, generating support for his party. The Kiwanis club paid half of his expenses in exchange for his urging its chapters to participate in the state convention to be held in Tallahassee. In those days, while campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat, he was also allowed to drive around the state’s public places, announcing through bullhorns attached to the car, the times and places of his speaking engagements. His opponent– an old and tired incumbent, paid the poll tax of Italian and Spanish voters who lived in West Tampa and Ibo City. The incumbent won the election through that action and other forms of foul play.
Pepper was elected to the Senate in 1936. He bragged about how he played a key role in introducing the March 1941 “Lend-Lease” legislation that provided crucial assistance to England and the U.S.S.R. during WWII, and how his national-healthcare-proposal gave rise to funding for hospital construction and cancer research. However, voters in Florida’s northern counties that bordered Georgia were less than thrilled with his pro-civil-rights stance.
In autumn 1945, seeking to gain foreign-policy experience (because in the future he hoped to become chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) Pepper met with high-level leaders in nineteen different countries; among them Stalin, Leon Blum and leaders in soon-to-be Soviet satellites. In 1946 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the author attended a rally for vice-president Henry Wallace. Press photos were snapped of him, standing next to Paul Robeson.
The author was complacent about his 1950 Senate reelection bid, because in southern states, incumbents were traditionally returned to office as long as they avoided getting caught for financial crimes or having extramarital affairs. Unfortunately, he was gobsmacked by his political opponents’ smear campaign. A week before primary election day in May 1950, Pepper’s opponent– George Smathers– stabbed him in the back. Years before, Pepper had helped Smathers get his first job in politics.
The Smathers camp distributed a book compiled by hate-mongers and funded by the long-time vicious political operative, Ed Ball. That book contained photos of enemies of the southern Republicans, with whom Pepper had been associating; of diverse ethnicities and political views. The captions– taken out of context, of course– screamed that Pepper was a treasonous “nigger lover” and “Communist” who was going to reveal nuclear secrets and hand over America’s natural resources to the Soviets.
Pepper was blissfully unaware of this abomination until two days before voting day. Even after all that, Pepper still claimed that a democracy necessitated the allowance of all forms of free speech, including childish, negative utterances consisting of “… name-calling, questioning of motives, or assassination of character.”
General criticism against Pepper’s party included blaming FDR and Truman for meekly allowing the Soviets to march into Eastern Europe. One counter-argument to that, was that the United Stated had just been through an exhausting war, and wasn’t all that keen on launching the requisite World War Three that would stop the Soviets from committing further aggression.
Fast forward to the early 1980’s. Pepper was serving as a Democratic Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. His introduction of a bill was thwarted by the Chair of the Rules Committee. That outrageously powerful Chair could refuse to hold a meeting so that he could stop the passage of a law he didn’t like, even if it had the support of “…the president, leadership of the House, and a majority of the Committee.”
Read the book to learn: about a myriad of other ways American politics have hardly changed in at least the last seventy years; what Pepper did as head of the House Select Committee on Crime in the early 1970’s; how he made his political comeback, and much more about his life and times.