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Claude Denson Pepper (September 8, 1900 – May 30, 1989) was an Americanmarker politician of the Democratic Party, and a spokesman for liberalism and the elderly. In foreign policy he shifted from pro-Soviet in the 1940s to anti-Communist in the 1950s. He represented Floridamarker 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, to May 30, 1989.

Early life

Born in Chambers County, Alabamamarker, in a shack belonging to poverty-stricken sharecroppers, Pepper graduated from the University of Alabamamarker and Harvard Law Schoolmarker. He briefly taught law at the University of Arkansasmarker and then moved to Perry, Floridamarker, 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 Unionmarker. Pepper had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1945 and, after meeting Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, declared he was "a man Americans could trust."

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." Pepper called Stalin the greatest man of our times.

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 to regain a Senate seat in 1958.

U.S. House

In 1962 Pepper was elected to the United States House of Representatives from a liberal district around Miami and Miami Beach, becoming one of very few former United States Senators in modern times (the only other example being James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr.) 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. At this stage Pepper was staunchly anti-Communist and anti-Castro; he supported 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.

Pepper served in Congress longer than any other Floridian and 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.

When he died, his body lay in state for two days under the Rotunda of the United States Capitolmarker; 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 Universitymarker (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 Countymarker has held an annual "Claude Pepper Dinner" to honor Pepper's tireless support for senior citizens.[76523]

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.

Red Accusations and hoax "Redneck Speech" in 1950

In 1950 George Smathers, formerly a supporter, 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. Smathers did not say, as was reported in Time Magazine during the campaign:
: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.

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.


  • Pepper, Claude, and Hays Gorey, Eyewitness to a Century (1987), autobiography.
  • Crispell, Brian Lewis, Testing the Limits: George Armistead Smathers and Cold War America (1999)
  • Danese, Tracy E. Claude Pepper and Ed Ball: Politics, Purpose, and Power (2000)
  • Finley, Keith M. Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil Rights, 1938-1965 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008).


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