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Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: Upton Sinclair Fights Back Against Hollywood Scare Tactics

Sinclair finally wrote an angry letter protesting unprecedented tactics by Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer and others.
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Greg Mitchell on Tuesday started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist -- the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair -- leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history -- swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first "attack ads" on the screen -- thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it "The Campaign of the Century" (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. These daily reports for HuffPost match the same date in 1934, as one of the dirtiest, most influential -- and most entertaining -- campaigns reached its final days. (Read last Monday's intro piece here and catch up with previous days right here. )

October 28, 1934

The New York Times, which lacked both cartoons and comics, nevertheless found a reason to chuckle over the California race. Upton Sinclair, the Times declared, had accomplished an authentic miracle in transforming Frank Finley Merriam into a New Dealer. "When a standpat Republican politician abandons a lifetime of party regularity at 70 to come out in hearty praise of a Democratic President," the paper noted, "it is time for connoisseurs of the unusual to stand by and take notes." Surely a GOP-White House deal to scuttle Sinclair was in the works.

Another notable aspect of the Merriam campaign, the New York Times observed in a second article, was the effective way it pitted jobholders against the jobless. That's what the paranoid warning about an invasion of indigents -- transmitted via billboard, radio, and movie screen -- was all about. In fact, the entire Merriam message was aimed at "the great white-collar class of the State. It is a unique sort of campaign," the Times commented, "as it probably marks the first attempt at a large scale and effective organization of this class in the history of American politics."

The Times hinted, however, that the election of Sinclair was not out of the question. The EPIC movement remained formidable, and public outrage over the GOP vote-purge drive had aroused "resentment and suspicion." The Times, which trumpeted news of the bums' rush earlier, now labeled as propaganda the GOP's charge that the unemployed were flocking to California.

Among Republicans in California, certainty was giving way to worry, even trepidation. The smear campaign had peaked too early, some feared; intimidation tactics backfired, others believed.

Upton Sinclair remained hopeful of a miracle finish. Returning this week to Southern California, EPIC's hotbed, had lifted his spirits. And every time he thought about quitting, someone came along to put him back on track.

This morning he received a telegram from a man named George Brasfield, who had lost his job Thursday at a biscuit company in San Francisco for objecting to the distribution of "nefarious, intimidating" anti-Sinclair literature at his office. But Brasfield seemed more concerned about Sinclair than himself. "Stay in and fight," he wired the candidate. "You are the next governor of California... "

Sinclair fired off telegrams to Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts and Representative Wright Patman of Texas, who headed congressional investigation committees. Citing Billy Wilkerson's column in the Hollywood Reporter, Sinclair charged that Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Carey Wilson, and Charles Pettijohn had "entered a 'war' against me and are aiding the Merriam campaign" by creating "false propaganda in motion pictures." Congress, he suggested, should mount a "complete investigation of the political activities" of the movie industry, comparing this in importance to the probe of the meat industry sparked by publication of The Jungle in 1906. (Watch Thalberg's attack ads here.)

Father Charles Coughlin inaugurated his fall radio season this afternoon with a full-throated attack on the Liberty League and other cowardly "perverters" of financial ruin. As usual when Coughlin spoke, commerce, discourse, even conversation came to a complete halt in many working-class neighborhoods around the country. Coughlin had been off the air since the spring amid rumors that he was about to break with President Roosevelt. The White House had expended a lot of energy attempting to keep the radio priest in line. Joe Kennedy, Jefty O'Connor, and Henry Morgenthau, among others, had met with Coughlin recently.

So when the good father declared today that "more than ever I am in favor of a new deal," the president's men might have sighed with relief. Father Coughlin remained hostile to Upton Sinclair, despite the candidate's recent visit and plea for support. Coughlin said:

Today we have a nominee for the office of governor in one of our states who is advocating production for use and not for profit. As irrational and nonsensical as is this theory, who knows how many persons two years from now will support it with their ballots unless the equally nonsensical and equally irrational theories of capitalism be rectified.

The justice of the peace in Loyalton Township, California, conducted an inquiry today into the death of ranch worker Robert Leighton, who died last Friday following an argument with his boss, Gil Martin, over the governor's race. Martin admitted that he shot Leighton, a Sinclair supporter, but claimed it was in self-defense. Testimony indicated that Martin shot Leighton in the back, but there appeared to be no eyewitnesses to the crime.

The local district attorney, J. M. McMahon, sympathized with the defendant, at least politically. McMahon had recently organized a Democrats-for-Merriam club, and informed Earl Warren that he intended to "fight the red menace that threatens the state." Today he decided to reduce the charges against Gil Martin from murder to manslaughter, and the town justice ordered the prisoner released on two thousand dollars' bail.

Tennis star Helen Wills Moody wasn't the only authentic American sports hero to support Frank Merriam. The man many people called the greatest baseball player who ever lived, Ty Cobb, announced today that he had enrolled himself as a leader in the northern California nonpartisan
Merriam campaign. In fact, according to a press report, Cobb was "one of the busiest campaigners for the Governor" on the peninsula south of San Francisco.

A new edition of Mitchell's book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at:

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