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Florida politics churns mud faster than a swamp buggy in the 'Glades

TALLAHASSEE — People in Florida are shocked — shocked! — that Rick Scott would stretch the truth in his TV ads.

People have short memories.

An example of the Republican nominee for governor's distortions is Scott's ad claiming that Democratic opponent Alex Sink is solely responsible for losses in the state pension fund. In fact, Sink is one of three trustees overseeing the fund and the other two are Republicans.

Challenged to defend the exaggeration, Scott told me: "She's the chief financial officer of the state. That means she's responsible for the funds of the state. This is a big deal."

When you see an ad for a soft drink or a rental car, do you believe every word? Of course not. Consumers — voters — should view political ads with the same skepticism.

Florida has long been an especially fertile place for mudslinging. What some scholars consider the dirtiest campaign of all time was waged right here, back in 1950.

Alex Sink was a little tyke, and Rick Scott wasn't born yet. America was in the deepening chasm of anti-Communist hysteria, and U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper was running for re-election. What happened tells us that political campaigns are actually cleaner now than they were then.

Pepper was a proud liberal New Dealer who had antagonized the state's moneyed interests — chief among them Ed Ball, the financier, lobbyist and hardball tactician who managed the du Pont family's vast Florida holdings.

Pepper and Ball detested each other. Ball put his money and muscle behind George Smathers, who used it to drive Pepper from the Senate. (Pepper's exile from Washington ended a dozen years later when he was elected to Congress and became a tireless advocate for the elderly.)

Late in that 1950 campaign, a vicious smear surfaced against Pepper in the form of a 49-page booklet titled The Red Record of Senator Claude Pepper.

A devastatingly effective work of innuendo and half-truth, the document showed Pepper on stage with two heroes of the far-left: politician Henry Wallace and singer Paul Robeson, an African-American, described in the booklet as a "Negro Communist."

Out-of-context news clippings highlight Pepper's ties to various left-wing groups, described as "Communist fronts" in the booklet, which is highlighted in red, of course. The piece is a time capsule of Red-baiting, race-baiting and guilt by association, and its length alone gives it the appearance of comprehensiveness.

A self-proclaimed ex-FBI agent from Jacksonville, Lloyd Leemis, was the author of the booklet. With television in its infancy, the booklet was distributed throughout Florida with the same level of saturation Scott is using on TV.

Pepper's assertion that Ball bankrolled the smear has not been proven.

David Brinkley once called the Pepper-Smathers contest the dirtiest campaign in the history of American politics. Naturally, it made the book Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Campaigns of All Time, by Kerwin Swint.

This is the same campaign remembered for the mythology of Smathers hoodwinking rural "Crackers" with nonsensical 50-cent-word insults against his opponent, like accusing Pepper of "practicing celibacy before marriage."

As Pepper wrote in his autobiography, Claude Denson Pepper: Eyewitness to a Century, he was standing on a street in downtown St. Petersburg when a woman handed him a copy of the booklet.

"I might have difficulty voting for the man myself," Pepper wrote. He saw the extremely unflattering photo of himself on the cover, calling it "dreadful" and "snaggle-toothed."

Pepper lost to Smathers by 60,000 votes, a landslide in the then-sparsely settled Sunshine State. The 1950 campaign established for all time that dirty campaigning is alive and well in Florida.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Florida politics churns mud faster than a swamp buggy in the 'Glades 10/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 11:42pm]

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