How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future


Schlesinger later said that he regretted that the statement had come out so soon after Stevenson had been a guest in his house. Schlesinger’s wife, Marian, told newspapers she was still for Stevenson. (Robert Kennedy wrote in a postscript scrawled at the bottom of a letter to Schlesinger, “Can’t you control your own wife—or are you like me?”) At a party, Galbraith was accused of the “worst personal betrayal in American history.” Not everyone jumped ship. But Ithiel de Sola Pool did. He sent a copy of Simulmatics’ first, confidential report to a Kennedy aide, Ted Sorensen; Pool may have handed one to Schlesinger, too. Sorensen mulled it over, but, at the moment, he, like everyone else, was busy getting ready for the Democratic National Convention, in Los Angeles. On July 5th, Lyndon Johnson entered the race, mainly to rattle Kennedy. Three days later, on CBS News, Stevenson said that, if drafted, he would run.

Conventions involve a lot of jiggery-pokery and more too-rich food and bad champagne than most people see in a lifetime. Then, there’s the dealmaking. Early in July, the Kennedy campaign set up headquarters in a four-room suite at the Biltmore Hotel. A young writer named Thomas B. Morgan, a very close friend of Ed Greenfield’s (and soon to be Simulmatics’ director of publicity), flew from New York to Los Angeles, where he wore a “Draft Stevenson” button on his lapel. He was there, as press secretary, to help establish headquarters for the nonexistent Stevenson campaign. Kennedy arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 9th. So did Stevenson, who was greeted at the airport by thousands of supporters. Schlesinger, about to board his own plane, wrote in his diary, miserably, “If AES had any chance, I would feel happier in Los Angeles if I were working for him, or at least I think I would; I would feel happier for myself.”

Pool and Greenfield flew to Los Angeles, too, to make sure that Simulmatics’ report on Black voters in the North got into the hands of the platform committee. They had already given a copy of the report to Chester Bowles, the committee chairman, and another to Harris Wofford, a Kennedy staffer and friend of Greenfield’s who would draft the platform’s civil-rights plank. (“Let me suggest that some time soon you try to talk with a good friend of mine, a very astute public relations man, Ed Greenfield,” Wofford had written to Martin Luther King, Jr., earlier that year.) Bowles had appointed a twenty-man drafting panel that included only four Southerners. Meeting on Sunday, July 10th, it endorsed a platform called “The Rights of Man.” Its boldest plank staked out the most liberal position on civil rights ever taken by either party.

The public sees what happens on the Convention floor; the dealmaking takes place behind closed doors. Gore Vidal hosted a party that, as Schlesinger reported, included “everyone from Max Lerner to Gina Lollobrigida.” The morning after a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Minow pulled Stevenson into a bathroom, for a private word.

“Governor,” he said, “you can listen to what you hear from those people or to me. Illinois is caucusing in fifteen minutes and it’s almost one hundred percent for Kennedy.”

“Really?” Stevenson asked. “What do you suggest?”

“The possibilities of what could go wrong out there are stressing me out.”
Cartoon by Amy Hwang

“I suggest you not go out of here a defeated guy trying to get nominated a third time,” Minow said. “I suggest you come out for Kennedy, be identified with his nomination, and unite the party.”

Stevenson dithered. On the morning of Monday, July 11th, in the Kennedy suite at the Biltmore, Bobby Kennedy held a staff meeting. He took off his coat and loosened his tie and climbed onto a chair. “I want to say a few words about civil rights,” he said. “We have the best civil-rights plank the Democratic party has ever had. I want you fellows to make it clear to your delegations that the Kennedy forces are unequivocally in favor of this plank.” Schlesinger found it one of the most impressive speeches of the Convention.

Outside the arena, thousands of Stevenson supporters gathered, chanting and carrying banners. (“A THINKING MAN’S CHOICE—STEVENSON!” “FACE THE MORAL CHALLENGE—STEVENSON.”) Even White admitted, “This was more than a demonstration, it was an explosion.” By Tuesday, the number of Stevenson supporters outside the arena seemed to have doubled. That night, Stevenson entered the Convention hall, not as a candidate but as a delegate for Illinois, to seventeen minutes of applause. Wednesday newspapers ran new headlines: “KENNEDY TIDE EBBS.”

The Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy nominated Stevenson. On Wednesday night, McCarthy rose to make his speech. “Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party,” he pleaded. “Do not reject this man.” By Morgan’s count, the applause lasted for twenty-seven minutes. And there was the unending chant, “We Want Stevenson!” Morgan described “a giant papier-mâché ‘snowball’—made of petitions bearing more than a million signatures calling on the convention to ‘Draft Stevenson’ ” floating up from the rostrum. Someone yelled, “Look, it’s Sputnik!”

As the galleries seemed to surge and throb, the delegates on the floor were strangely silent. McCarthy asked them to set themselves free from whatever pledge they’d made, no matter the caucuses and the primaries. But most delegates considered themselves bound, at least in the first ballot, by their instructions from the voters. “This the delegates knew; but not the galleries,” White wrote. Stevenson, in any case, had already lost. Earlier that day, he’d tried to persuade Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley to deliver the Illinois delegation to him, and Daley had refused. His campaign ended before it had begun.

Kennedy was persuaded to offer the Vice-Presidency to Lyndon Johnson, as a means of assuring that, as President, he would have the full support of Johnson as Senate Majority Leader. No one expected Johnson to accept. “You just won’t believe it,” Kennedy said, when he came back from meeting with Johnson. “He wants it!”

Finally, on Friday, July 15th, an exhausted Kennedy delivered an acceptance speech so lacklustre that it gave Nixon confidence that he would have no trouble handling Kennedy in a televised debate. Schlesinger watched with a twinge. “I believe him to be a liberal,” he wrote in his diary. “I also believe him to be a devious and, if necessary, a ruthless man.” The next day, seeking out that ruthless man, Pool wrote to the Kennedy-for-President headquarters, formally offering the services of the Simulmatics Corporation.

Minow thought Project Macroscope was unethical and ought to be illegal. Schlesinger thought it just might work. On August 11th, Simulmatics began to compile three reports for the Kennedy campaign. Two weeks later, the firm presented its findings to Bobby Kennedy and top campaign staff, at a briefing held in R.F.K.’s office.

There’s really no way to measure the influence of the Simulmatics reports on the Kennedy campaign. After the briefing, the campaign followed Simulmatics’ advice about what Kennedy should do. The question is whether the Kennedy campaign would have done these things, anyway.

To conventional polls and political analysis, Simulmatics added computer simulations, not unlike, say, the simulations used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to predict the number of new COVID-19 cases given various scenarios. A simulation program works by way of endless IF/THEN statements: IF this, THEN that. IF/THEN was the syntax of Simulmatics’ reports. They began with the state of play: Kennedy was behind Nixon in the polls, but nearly a quarter of voters had not yet made a decision. “Negro voters are a danger point for the Kennedy campaign,” the Simulmatics team observed, and Jewish support for Kennedy was fairly weak, suggesting that “a straightforward attack on prejudice will appeal to these minorities since they are ideologically inclined to oppose such prejudices.” What Kennedy viewed as a liability might be turned into a strength. “The issue of anti-Catholicism and religious prejudice could become much more salient in the voters’ minds. If that occurs, what will happen?” The team had run a computer simulation, analyzing the effect of further discussion of religion on each of four hundred and eighty voter types concerning “(1) its past voting record; (2) its turnout at the polls; and (3) its attitude toward a Catholic candidate.” As a result of this analysis, Simulmatics recommended that Kennedy confront the religious issue, with the aim not of averting criticism but of inciting it: “The simulation shows that Kennedy today has lost the bulk of the votes he would lose if the election campaign were to be embittered by the issue of anti-Catholicism. The net worst has been done.” If Kennedy were to talk more and more openly about his Catholicism, then he would be attacked for it. And, if he were attacked, that would shore up support where he needed it most.


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