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Claude Pepper - 2 June 1989

There are times – and this is one of them – when you rightly expect me to talk about this when I feel more obliged to talk about that.

You must certainly have expected, as I did, that I would be describing and commenting on the unprecedented scene in the House of Representatives last Wednesday when, for the first time in history, a speaker of the house was forced to resign.

What changed my intention was, on Tuesday, the death of a great man, all the more necessary to talk about because it’s very likely that most listeners will never have heard of him. When public men grow very old or have been long retired they suffer the fate of having their obituaries written up, naturally, by young journalists who too have barely heard of them and have to dig into the newspaper’s files, solemnly known as the morgue, and put together a plausible story.

So the man I’m talking about. He was on the front pages but only, I suspect, because he devoted his last dozen years to a political cause – the care, feeding, welfare and ennobling of old people, which he fought for so relentlessly, so visibly, so vociferously, so cantankerously that as a fellow politician said of him a year or two ago, “He must be the only congressman who has a loyal constituency of 25 million Americans”.

And, sure enough, the lead sentence in Wednesday’s obituaries went something like this – "Claude Pepper, the unabashed liberal congressman and former United States senator from Florida, who became a champion of the elderly in a political career that spanned 60 years, died yesterday afternoon at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, the oldest member of Congress, he was 88 years old and lived in Miami.”

Well, as I suggested, concern for the elderly was only the last of his many passionate crusades. If Claude Pepper had died in 1942 at the age of 42 he would certainly have been mourned on the front pages of the British papers, for he was the one senator above all others who, after a trip to Europe and one look at Hitler in action in Nuremberg, came home in a stew of indignation.

Who, during the days of America’s neutrality stormed away time and again before an apathetic Senate, urging all aid short of war to Britain, who – to mocking sighs – swore that if Britain went down the United States might go down too, who in 1940 drafted the famous deal whereby the United States exchanged American destroyers for the protection of British island bases in the western hemisphere.

And who, in the winter and spring of 1941 drafted, with the journalist Walter Lippmann, the Lend-Lease Act which did indeed provide tanks and guns and food and planes and material to a besieged Britain and a reeling Russia and sustained them both 'til the United States came in.

Claude Denson Pepper was born in 1900 of a poor tenant farmer in Alabama. Both his grandfathers had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side and, unlike the next generation of Americans and any other since, he learned as a boy what a civil war can do to the land and the livelihoods of the people who fought it.

Since, as I say, he can be no more than a name today we ought to get a picture of him at the start and luckily there is no need to be over-tactful about painting it, for he described himself as a boy “the ugliest little squirt around”.

Well, whatever he was then it cannot be denied that throughout his youth and well into his middle years he resembled nothing so much as an English bull terrier, not bull dog, but that beast with the long snout like the enlarged head of a white rat and two bloodshot slits for eyes, and I can’t help it if I outrage some devoted owners by saying that the English bull terrier is the unhandsomest breed of the species, however that’s what Claude Pepper looked like for most of his early and middle life. A pock-marked complexion didn’t help.

He started worked on the farm as a boy but he got through high school and then went to work in, first a power plant and then a steel mill, in order to fulfil the rather cocky destiny he’d planned for himself. At the age of ten he announced to his ribald playmates that he intended to become a United States senator.

Well, his wages saw him through Alabama State University and he’d saved enough by working in college as a waiter and handyman to qualify for, and go to, of all lofty institutions – Harvard Law School. He came home then, to teach law for a year or so and started to practise law in Florida.

In 1928 – remember he was the age of the century – he got on to the Florida State Democratic Committee and stumped the state for the presidential hopes of New York’s Governor Al Smith. That was an audacious, even dangerous, thing to do in the south in the late '20s for Smith was a Catholic and the Ku Klux Klan was at large by night to beat up anyone who, in its eyes, was going to set the pope in Washington.

Pepper got into the state legislature that year and the first bill he ever introduced was one to allow folks over 65 to fish without a licence. In 1934 he ran for the Senate. He was defeated, got back to fill out a dead man’s term two years later but in 1938 got there on his own with a thumping majority and for the next 12 years he was Franklin Roosevelt’s most cherished field commander in the Senate, an 18-carat, 100% down-the-line New Dealer, introducing or supporting with very spunky eloquence everything from revised old age pension plans, the first collective bargaining act, the start of social security, the abolition of the poll tax that kept impoverished blacks and whites from the voting booth.

Most days on the Senate floor he took the heat from the Republicans that the White House protected Roosevelt from. He was loved and he was well hated. To him, the glory of the New Deal was that it poured out a treasury of money and resources and goodwill for the poor of America who never had a break. To his opponents he was the arch liberal, known – since he came from a semi-tropical state – as Red Pepper, the active, impulsive embodiment of Mr Roosevelt’s detested programme of tax and spend, and spend some more.

When the second war did come to America, Pepper was the happy interventionist, helping to conscript labour and industry and quicken the delivery of masses of military aid to the Allies and, after the war, even before the Marshall Plan, he impressed his nickname Red Pepper on his enemies by insisting, without success, on economic aid to the Soviet Union.

For five years after the war he kept on proclaiming that Stalin was no threat to anybody and his loyal constituency fell away. It deserted him in droves with the conviction of several American and Canadian spies and the arrival on the murky scene of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 1950 Pepper was up for re-election. A textile magnate and some other tycoons decided to mount a campaign to wreck him. They financed and played every dubious and dirty trick in the game but the tactic that had the most conspicuous success was one speech of his opponent, a set speech solemnly intoned before all the gaping rednecks at every rural crossroad in Florida.

In it the man spoke like a judge pronouncing sentence – “I must tell you fellow citizens that Claude Pepper is a shameless extrovert, that he practised nepotism with his sister-in-law. As for the sister who went to New York to become an actress, let me tell you she became a thespian and it is no secret that before he was married, Claude Pepper practised celibacy.”

Pepper was defeated in an earthquake and the winners crowed that never again should we hear from what they called “Pepper, the tool of union bosses, Franklin Roosevelt’s lapdog, the nigger-lover and the spell-binding pinko.”

Well he went home to practise law and pay off heavy debts. Twelve years later, 1962, a new congressional district was created in Florida and now Pepper reappeared in Washington, in the house. He stayed there for 27 years until last Tuesday, storming as of old, now for equal rights for women, prison reform, drug rehabilitation. The last bill he sponsored, and got through, was one abolishing any age limit for federal employees and the raising of the retirement age in private business from 65 to 70.

Throughout those years in the house he was, as I say, the congressional champion of the aged and the infirm. He may not have coined the phrase "senior citizen" but he was one of the first to use it in order, he said, “to defeat, expunge and obliterate the stereotype of the old as toothless, sexless, humourless, witless and constipated.”

In his old age he looked less like a bull terrier and more and more like a large amiable potato with a rash of eyes. “Still not handsome,” he said “but by now surely acceptable?”

In the last years, after open-heart surgery and in possession of a pace-maker he wore two hearing aids, a wig and he said, to keep fit, played golf and pedalled away on a stationary bicycle. The last time we saw him in March he was standing up before a great crowd of very old folk and saying, “Repeat after me – I am proud to be a senior citizen.”

A month later he was in the hospital and, blessedly, only a few weeks after that went down, as his wife had done ten years ago before, what he called "the demon cancer".

Claude Pepper. He was 88.

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