When Good Friends Run Against Each Other
The future President Kennedy Pleads With a Florida Senator to Bow Out of the Florida Primary
An excerpt from "An Interview with George Smathers" from the Florida and Politics Oral History Collection:
Well, Kennedy started out early on and his father had made up his own mind that he was going to spend a lot of money, if that was what it would take, to see that Jack had a real run at the presidency. He was the fellow who first utilized the polling system. In those days nobody really ran polls. I don't ever recollect seeing any large number of polls, even in magazines, Newsweek or Time or the Saturday Evening Post, or whatever, it was very rare that you would see a poll by anybody. Pollsters had not come into their own. Joe Kennedy already had the pollsters, though. He started that with the Merchandise Mart out in Chicago, by sending out through his advertising agency, they developed some sort of a polling system as to what it was that people liked. What was it they would buy. He started out as a pollster actually in the merchandise business, and much before anybody ever thought about it in politics. But then he's the fellow that began to understand that running these sort of inventories as to what people were thinking, in addition to what they would buy from the Merchandise Mart, which sold most everything as you know. He began to use it to find out what were the political issues they were interested in. He had the big advantage of running polls for his son Jack Kennedy long before people in general knew that polls were ever being taken. I recollect that I kept telling Jack that "you don't have a chance to beat Henry Cabot Lodge," [in 1952]. He would say, "Yes, I'm going to beat Henry Cabot Lodge; and here's what percent I'm going to beat him." I said, "You've got to be crazy man, you can't do it." And lo and behold, he did it. And then he got ready -- I don't think they ran a poll on the vice presidential contest in 1956. I don't think they had a poll on that at all. But I do know that in 1960, when the race began to get started, that Jack Kennedy had the insight as to what were the issues in these various states in which he ran in the primaries. And he would beat Hubert Humphrey where he had actually no business beating Hubert Humphrey, but he knew just exactly what were the issues. In Wisconsin, he knew exactly what the issues were.
Smathers was even Kennedy's best man for his wedding.
When he went to Maryland to beat Danny Brewster, who was a very popular senator but the Kennedy group had run a poll and they knew what the issues were and they had run, Jack Kennedy on a very secret basis against Danny Brewster, and figured that he could win. They ran a poll in West Virginia, and this was when Kennedy let me get myself suckered into making a lot of bets and a lot of big statements that there's no way that Jack Kennedy, a Catholic, would beat Hubert Humphrey in a highly unionized state like West Virginia, a highly anti-Catholic state like West Virginia, no way that Kennedy would win. Yet Kennedy won. He had exactly the right issues, he knew how far to go on everything, and he won. Now, we had a primary in Florida, this is a rather interesting story, it was going to happen the first Tuesday in May. Kennedy decided that he wanted to run in Florida. At the same time, Johnson also decided that he would now bestir himself and he felt that he had a lot of friends in Florida, which he did, and that he would run in that Democratic primary down there against Kennedy. He felt as though he could win, but he did not have the benefit, necessarily, of a poll. But Kennedy was very confident. I didn't know what he had. This poll business only became clear later; after this Florida primary was the first time I really began to understand how Kennedy was doing all these things by virtue of the polls I did not know about those polls prior to the Florida primary. 78 Anyway, so here I was caught between Johnson on the one side, who was my leader, I was his whip, and here was my dear friend, personal friend, Kennedy, and they're going to go into my state and ruin it. What am I going to do? All of my friends are going to say: "Who do we vote for?" Obviously the Catholic votes would go for Jack, and the West Florida people would vote for Johnson, and they'd divide the state very much. So I said, "I don't want you guys to run." I went to Johnson and I said, "Now, Lyndon, I don't want you to run." He said, "I think I can beat him if you'll help me." I said, "Here I am, I'm a close friend of both of you. I've worked for you, on your team, and yet Jack Kennedy is personally my best friend here in the Senate. So the only thing that I can finally do is I'm going to run myself and keep you guys out. Because I don't think either one of you think you can beat me in my own state." I think that was true. Kennedy beat them in Indiana, he beat them in Maryland, he beat them in Wisconsin and so on, but to make a long story short, I decided that I was going to run, and I announced that I was going to run for president in Florida.
I would be the favorite son from Florida, and that would stop Johnson and Kennedy from dividing up the state. Johnson was pleased with that, he didn't really want to run anyway, but Kennedy kept after me: "You've got to back out, you've got to back out." So let's say the day is now February, the election was going to be the first Tuesday in May. If you're going to file, the filing date expires on let's say February the 16th, or whatever the date was, I've forgotten. I had filed, Kennedy had also filed, and so here we were getting ready to run against each other. I didn't know anything about the polls. I said, "Now Jack, I think I can beat you." He said, "I don't want to run against you." I said, "Well, I don't want you to." To make a long story short, he kept after me to withdraw. "I want you to withdraw, I want you to withdraw." The day came on the 16th, you had until twelve o'clock to withdraw. I got a call from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's secretary, who said, "Senator Kennedy would like to see you." So I went over to his office, and he was sitting there. He said, "Old pal"--he was always starting off that way--"old pal, you've got to do me this favor. You're my best friend, you were in my wedding, and you've got to withdraw.
I can win, easy. I'm going to get the nomination, but I don't want to run against you. It's now a quarter of eleven, and you've got until twelve o'clock. I've got a fellow in Tallahassee, in the capital, in the secretary of state's office, waiting to withdraw your name." He said, "You've got to do this for me." I said, "Well, I can't do it. I'm not going to do it." Well, it went back and forth and finally he got mad and said, "Damn it to hell, what kind of friend are you?" And so and so. I said, "Look, I'm not going to stand here and take all this abuse, so I'm going to go out. I'm leaving. I'm just sorry. If you're going to run, we're going to have a hell of a race, that's all I can say. But I don't want you down there dividing our state. What I will do is after the first ballot, I will instruct my delegates they can go for whomever they want to vote for, either you or Lyndon. You've got Grant Stockdale, who will be on my slate"--you had to put in a slate already--"and he loves you as you know, and he'll be making big speeches for you. Scotty Peek and some of these kids will be 79 probably for Lyndon, but you're going to have fine representation and I think possibly you would get the majority of our delegates after the first ballot. But I'm going to run."
"Oh, no, that won't do it." Anyway, so I left. I got a call in about fifteen minutes, said, "Would you come back over, Jack wants to see you again." So I came back over and there was about fifteen minutes before you could call and withdraw your name. He said, "Old pal, you've just got to do this." Then he'd rant and rave and raised hell and cussed me out. He said, "Well, son of a bitch, you are the worst guy." I said, "Well, I can't do it." It got to be twelve o'clock. "Okay, I'm in it. We'll have a good race." And I walked out. I said, "I'll see you on the battlefield." I got about as far as Evelyn's office, and Kennedy hollered, "George, come back here, I want to show you something." I came back in and he said, "You really are a no damn good friend. You really ought to have gotten out of this thing, I could win easy." But he said, "I don't know that I can run against you." I said, "Well, did you file?" He said, "I didn't file." I said, "Okay, well then that makes it easier." He said, "I'm going to show you something, come around here." And he pulled out his drawer, and here it was, Joe had run a poll of him against me in Florida, and I would have beaten him. He showed me that and I said, "Now look at that, there's my buddy, bullshitting me, trying to get me out of a deal. He'd run this poll. "I didn't think you could win against me down there, but I didn't know. But look at that." "No," he said, "you were pretty good, but I want to tell you something, you're not as good a friend as I thought you were." I said, "Well, you're probably going to get it anyway," which as a matter of fact he did. When we released the delegates on the second ballot, he got them all. But that was very interesting that he had run that poll even against me, his good friend, to see whether he could win. And I'm sure that if the poll had indicated he would have beaten me, he would have gone ahead and run. So that was an interesting insight into the Kennedy mind.