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Monday, September 17, 2012

Two Errors in 'New Yorker' Piece on Birth of Modern Politics

In a post earlier today, I noted a major new piece in this week's New Yorker by the estimable Jill Lepore on the birth of the modern political campaign, tracing  this back to Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934.  That campaign, and the new politics, happens to be the subject of my award-winning 1992 book, The Campaign of the Century.  So go to the post and links there for my articles, videos etc. on all this.

But I should point out a couple of errors in the Lepore piece.

Lepore covers near the start the boxes of Sinclair quotes that the Los Angeles Times published, often on its front page, during the campaign. These were direct quotes from Sinclair books, wrenched out of context to appear most damaging.  Some of them were quotes from fictional characters in his novels.  But she closes by stating that these excerpts in the Times were dug up by "a staff of only two," the pioneering political consultant team of Whitaker & Baxter.  Indeed, the pair did dig up quotes  and printed them on millions of pamphlets and direct mail pieces. but the Times had its own source for the quotes:  one of its staffers who researched and secured them at libraries on his own.  I even interviewed him for my book and then he appeared in a 1993 PBS documentary on the campaign, We Have a Plan,  that I worked on.  His name was Stan Gordon.

Lepore writes, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, who headed the California League Against Sinclairism...”   In fact, they did not “head” the group--they were the uncredited and no doubt well-paid “publicists” for it.  That was the whole point of the “unseen hand” behind the official GOP campaign and what made this race so influential.   CLAS was actually headed by Harold J. Boyd, the assistant city assessor in San Francisco,  with a full organization including a youth brigade, and well-known endorsers such as former governor C.C. Young and tennis legend Helen Wills Moody.   Whitaker and Baxter designed and printed millions of leaflets and direct mail items for CLAS.  Unquestionably they were pivotal but they did not “head” the group.  Much of their activities for the GOP were quite separate from the book, in sending from their own office many articles, editorials and cartoons to dozens of California newspapers, which happily printed them.

Plus: This is not an error but it is unfortunate that Lepore, in writing a good deal about Whitaker & Baxter's later work for, and against, Governor Earl Warren,  does not mention that Warren was head of the state's Republican Party in ...1934.   She also states the Leone Baxter rarely gave interviews and "made an exception" at one point in the 1960s.  I  interviewed her in the late 1980s, met her in the early 1990s, and arranged her interview with the same PBS documentary mentioned above.   She even signed a copy of The Campaign of the Century for me.

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