Think This Year's Campaign Is Dirty? Check Out 1934 -- and the Birth of Modern Politics

Like Obama, Upton Sinclair led a "change" campaign with masses of new or re-energized voters, he was pictured as mysterious interloper, and he was labeled a "Socialist." Though that was mostly true in his case.
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Forgive me, but when pundits label this year's presidential campaign "divisive" and "dirty," I have to laugh. After writing books about the 1950 contest for the U.S. Senate between Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas and, especially, Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934, not much could happen this year that would truly shock or offend me.

The champion of all dirty races in this century, in fact, was that 1934 contest. Like Barack Obama, Sinclair led a "change" campaign with masses of new or re-energized voters leading him to an upset victory for the nomination from the Democrats in dire economic times. Like Obama, he was pictured as mysterious interloper. And like Obama, he was labeled a "Socialist."

Well, actually, that was mostly true in his case.

When it was all over, the modern political campaign was born, dominated by spin doctors, ad men, attack ads on the screen, Hollywood antics, and all the rest. As the title of my 1992 book about it declared: The Campaign of the Century -- The Birth of Media Politics. But the campaign also helped move the Democratic party to the left and inspired some of FDR's most important New Deal programs.

Back in the summer of '34, in his weekly column appearing in hundreds of newspapers, Will Rogers, America's most popular (and greatest) political commentator, revealed that a famous author, a socialist no less, was running for governor of California, "a darn nice fellow, and just plum smart, and if he could deliver even some of the things he promises, should not only be governor of one state, but president of all of 'em."

Six weeks later, on August 28, 1934, Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary for governor of California, and all hell broke loose, across the state, then across the continent. On the day after, the Los Angeles Times, under Harry Chandler, denounced Sinclair's "maggot-like horde" of supporters, and the Hearst press was no kinder. Earl Warren, the Alameda County district attorney, warned that the state was about to be overcome by communism, and the movie studios threatened to move back east if Sinclair took office.

But Sinclair, author of The Jungle and dozens of other muckraking books, had created a crisis not just for his home state but the entire nation, by embracing FDR's New Deal, while also leading a grassroots movement called EPIC (End Poverty in California), perhaps the greatest such organization of the century. "Upton Sinclair has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century," his friend H.L. Mencken explained, "is at it again in California, and on such a scale that the whole country is attracted by the spectacle." Sinclair was also California's first celebrity politician: before Arnold, before Ronnie.

The prospect of a socialist governing the nation's most volatile state sparked nothing less than a revolution in American politics. With an assist from Hollywood, and leading newspapers, Sinclair's opponents virtually invented the modern media campaign.

It marked a stunning advance in the art of public relations, "in which advertising men now believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has observed. In another twenty years, these techniques would spread east, "achieve a new refinement," Schlesinger added, "and begin to dominate the politics of the nation."

The 1934 governor's race, in short, showed the candidates the way from the smoke-filled room to Madison Avenue, from the party boss to the "spin doctor." Soon the "Mad Men" would take over.

Media experts, making unprecedented use of film, radio, direct mail, opinion polls, and national fund-raising, devised the most astonishing (and astonishingly clever) smear campaign ever directed against a major candidate. "Many American campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics," columnist Heywood Broun commented, "but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced."

It mattered little that Sinclair's opponent, Governor Frank Merriam, was an "ox," as Westbrook Pegler put it or, in the words of Mencken, "a hack politician of the hollowest sort."

The political innovation that produced the strongest impact was the manipulation of moving pictures. Alarmed by the Sinclair threat, MGM's Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg produced fake newsreels, using Hollywood actors. W.R. Hearst helped distribute them. For the first time, the screen was used to demolish a candidate, a precursor of political attack ads on television.

At the same time, Sinclair's candidacy bewitched and bewildered President Roosevelt, less than two years into his New Deal and still struggling to achieve his aims. If he endorsed Sinclair, FDR's critics would accuse him of supporting socialism; if he didn't endorse his party's candidate, some of his friends might call him a coward. Mencken said he preferred Sinclair to Roosevelt and hoped Upton would win, for "it is always amusing to see a utopian in office."

Throughout the autumn this drama (often a circus) played out across California, with everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Ty Cobb taking part. FDR nearly endorsed Sinclair, pulled back and doomed his chances. No institution dishonored itself quite like the California press, dominated by the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Hearst papers, north and south. One anecdote that illustrates this:

In October that year, The New York Times' star reporter Turner Catledge (later top editor of the paper) came to California to cover the campaign. Naturally, he hooked up with the Los Angeles Times' bad-boy political editor Kyle Palmer, who pretty much ran the state and every four years selected its chief executive: hence his nickname, "The Little Governor."

The L.A. Times had been lampooning Sinclair in word, deed, and political cartoon for weeks on an unprecedented scale. To add insult to injury, Palmer was advising, even writing speeches for, Sinclair's opponent. Over dinner, Catledge asked Palmer why the paper refused to be fair and balanced in covering the campaign.

"Turner, forget it," Palmer replied. "We don't go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York-of being obliged to print both sides. We're going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We're going to kill him."

And so they did. Sinclair's huge lead evaporated (especially after those fake newsreels hit the screen), FDR refused to save him, and Governor Merriam won re-election. Kyle Palmer continued to rule California politics for decades.

And now, 74 years later, the L.A. Times has endorsed a Democrat for president for the first time in memory. So perhaps Obama's fate on election day will outshine Sinclair's. But Sinclair did enough, as his campaign is credited with helping to inspire many of FDR's second-stage New Deal programs, including Social Security.

Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P. His book on the campaign won the Goldsmith Book Prize in 1993. His other books include Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady and, this year, on Iraq and the media, So Wrong for So Long.

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