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"The Campaign of the Century"

Near the end of August in 1934, in the depths of The Depression, one of the world's most famous novelists and socialists, Upton Sinclair, swept the Democratic primary for governor of California.  Leading one of America's greatest grassroots movements,  EPIC (End Poverty in California), he appeared headed for victory in November.  To derail him,  Republicans and big business Democrats created the most extreme dirty tricks seen in the U.S. -- and also went out and invented the modern political campaign, for the first time turning a major race over to a new breed of political consultants and "spin doctors."  Hollywood took its first all-out plunge into politics (and it's never been the same).   And the saintly Irving Thalberg ordered the first "attack ads" for the screen, precursor of today's TV-based campaigns.  The amazing, often rollicking tale, was told in full for the first time in my book, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize.  Over the next two months, I will frequently post excerpts here, from the same date in 1934, right up to Election Day, latest at the top.

September 4, 1934:  Sinclair Meets FDR at Hyde Park

Logs crackled in the fireplace. The President occupied a large leather
chair in his library; a block of documents a foot high rested on the table
before him. "You see how far behind I am in my work," Franklin
Roosevelt said.
"Actually," observed Upton Sinclair, sitting directly across from him,
"we all marvel that you're so far ahead with it."
"I cannot go any faster than the people will let me," Roosevelt said.
"The people of my state," Sinclair responded eagerly, "will soon let
you know what they are thinking!"
A servant brought two glasses of iced tea, then exited, leaving the two
men alone. The President had rejected Jefty O'Connor's idea of having
someone monitor the meeting. Since there were only two parties to this
discussion, Roosevelt could afford to trust Sinclair. His visitor might
actually keep his vow of secrecy; and if he didn't, FDR could always
say that Sinclair recalled a particular statement or detail wrong. Whom
would people believe: Franklin Roosevelt or Upton Sinclair? There
would be no transcript, no third party, for Sinclair to appeal to.
Still, it wouldn't hurt to flatter Sinclair. The President was not above
it—in fact, he was famous for it—and this fellow was known to take
flattery to heart. FDR told Sinclair that he admired his work. When
Franklin was a child, his mother used to read “The Jungle” to him at the
breakfast table.

"And it spoiled your lamb chops?" Sinclair offered.
"Yes," the President said, throwing his great head back in a hearty
The story, of course, was suspect, since Roosevelt, at the time “The
Jungle” was published, was married and a student at Columbia Law
It was time to get down to business. Sinclair was determined not to
settle for vintage Roosevelt. He had come to Hyde Park for political
effect, but now that he was here, he discovered he was intensely curious
about FDR. Was he a wise man, learning by his own blunders, or a blind
man groping his way? He wanted to know how much the President
really knew about conditions in California—and how familiar he was
with the EPIC campaign.

Soon the candidate discovered that the President had either read “I,
Governor” or had been well briefed on the EPIC plan. They discussed
EPIC's effect on unemployment, capital investment, and inflation. Sin-
clair finally found a detail Roosevelt seemed unfamiliar with—the so-
called EPIC tax. Companies or utilities strapped for cash could pay their
state taxes in the form of goods and services. This would provide materi-
als (such as lumber and steel), as well as heat and electricity, for public-
works projects. Roosevelt leapt right in, as if, Sinclair observed,
firecrackers were going off in his head.
"Yes, it could be that way," he said, "but what if you did this ..."
Roosevelt asked questions, and before Sinclair could respond, FDR
took the answers right out of his mouth. This was the President's own
mind working, Sinclair discerned; he wasn't following a script.
Sinclair started off in another direction.
"Yes, that's important," FDR said, cutting him off. "I was just talking to
 someone about it yesterday."
Finally the old muckraker laughed. "I see you don't need me," Sin-
clair said. He would have understood if Roosevelt had responded to any
particular point by saying, "I couldn't support that," or "You're right,
but I can't say so right now." But the President never fell back on these
staples of political obfuscation. If Sinclair was causing FDR any embar-
rassment, the President was doing a good job of concealing it.
This seemed an appropriate moment for Sinclair to urge his new
friend to ignore reports about a third-party EPIC campaign for presi-
dent in 1936. Roosevelt cheerfully informed his guest that he was itching
to get back to writing and suggested that it might not be a bad idea for
them to trade jobs for a while.
The two men had been scheduled to meet for sixty minutes, and the
hour had long passed. It was now early evening, and the sky outside was
darkening. The butler brought another tray of iced tea. Sinclair didn't
know the proper etiquette. Should he rise, apologize for keeping the
President so long, and leave? Or wait for FDR to terminate the conver-
sation? The longer the discussion, the better it would appear for Sinclair;
afterward he could use it as a yardstick of presidential interest and
support. The meeting continued.

After a lengthy discussion of production for use, the President star-
tled Sinclair with a revelation. "My advisers tell me that I have to talk
to the people again over the radio and explain to them what I am doing,"
he said. "I am going to give that talk in two sections." The first speech
would concern "general problems"; the second, unemployment. FDR
seemed to suggest that he would deliver a fireside chat endorsing pro-
duction for use sometime around October twenty-fifth—two weeks
before Election Day.
Sinclair could hardly believe his ears. Ratification of his most impor-
tant platform plank—the whole basis of the EPIC plan—would be
almost as valuable as an endorsement of his candidacy.
"If you will do that, Mr. President," Sinclair said, barely able to
contain his gratitude, "it will elect me."

September 3, 1934:  The Man Who Invented the Modern Campaign

Clem Whitaker couldn't quite bring himself to work for Frank Merriam.
The GOP had offered him five thousand dollars to help out with the
governor's campaign in northern California, but Whitaker thought Mer-
riam was an incompetent fool. Also, he had no intention of following
someone else's orders. He would run the show—every bit of it—or find
another candidate, or skip a campaign entirely.
This would be Whitaker's first statewide election race. Just last year
he had established Campaigns, Inc., the country's first political consul-
tancy firm. Whitaker had created a new category of political operative.
The fact that he was one of a kind gave him supreme confidence. There
wasn't even any competition on the horizon, and this made him smile.
Whitaker offered a candidate what he called full-service campaign
management. This meant that he would attend to every aspect of the
campaign. The candidate just had to be—neither the candidate nor
party headquarters had to do. Whitaker would draw up a tight budget
and blueprint a battle plan, establish the themes and invent the slogans,
set up an itinerary and arrange the radio addresses, write the speeches
and place the advertising.

Nothing like this had previously existed in American politics. Until
recently, the party organization handled every campaign task, much of
it focused on precinct work—drumming up, getting out, or simply
buying votes. If the party boss was king, then the ward heeler was the
worker ant. The political party acted as the principal link between
candidates and voters, and communication depended primarily on face-
to-face contact. The ward heeler's job was to be personally acquainted
with as many voters as possible within his territory. Most voters relied
strictly on party labels when they cast their ballots. Because there were
relatively few undecided voters, political advertising was not pervasive.
Newspapers were so partisan that advertising was often considered
superfluous. Rather than buy space in a newspaper, a political party
sometimes bought the newspaper.
Campaigns were directed by party officials. Some, like Mark Hanna,
who put William McKinley in the White House, were good at it. Party
hacks handled the detail work. With a party machinery in place, there
was little cause to call on mercenaries from outside to tell the worker
ants what to do. Party discipline was all.
By the 1920s, however, this system had started to wear thin. The party
no longer spoke to the voter unobstructed. Newspapers, at least in some
parts of the country, asserted their political independence. The new
medium of radio became popular, not just for entertainment but as a
source of news and opinion. Advertising was ubiquitous, and a new
breed of soap salesman known as the press agent had arrived on the
scene. Thanks to muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and
Upton Sinclair, corporations that once cared little about what appeared
in the press now set up publicity bureaus. It didn't take long for the press
agent to appear in politics. Party officials started hiring outsiders to
promote causes and candidates. Woodrow Wilson hired the writer
George Creel to direct his wartime propaganda office.
What Clem Whitaker had seized on in 1933 was the notion that
free-lancers could, should, and (if he had anything to say about it) would
handle every aspect of a political campaign, not just public relations.
Whitaker did not want any part of a campaign that he did not control,
all the way down to writing the checks.
One of Clem's maxims was "You can't wage a defensive campaign
and win."  The Republican party had offered
Whitaker a generous sum to help organize a bipartisan front group in
San Francisco that would stir up anti-Sinclair sentiment in the state.
Whitaker had some new ideas—utilizing modern advertising and pub-
licity techniques—he wanted to try out. To attack meant more than just
stating the obvious. It was a way of defining the political situation.
For starters, Clem wanted to find out exactly what ammunition he
had at his disposal. And so, having obtained dozens of the old muck-
raker's books and pamphlets, Clem Whitaker and his redheaded associ-
ate, Leone Baxter, left their office in the Forum Building at Eighth and
K streets in Sacramento and went into seclusion, setting as their unenvi-
able goal an examination of virtually every word Upton Sinclair had
ever written. (Note:  See Jill Lepore's lengthy piece at The New Yorker
last year, which profiled Whitaker & Baxter and mentioned my book.)

September 2, 1934:  Movie Moguls Threaten to Move Studios to New York 

Upton Sinclair, who was heading East on a train to meet the President at
Hyde Park, did not share Franklin Roosevelt's skepticism about
fundamental change. He thought he could make California over, turn
it upside down. That's precisely what worried motion-picture execu-
tives. Rumors circulated in Hollywood that leaders of the film industry,
meeting privately, had vowed to close down operations and move back
East if EPIC became a reality. Now the moguls were about to go public
with this threat. Variety prepared a front-page story that promised to
produce panic not only in Hollywood but across California when it hit
the newsstands on Tuesday.
Today that seemed very far away, as Hollywood, feverish and self-
fascinated as ever, passed its final idyllic hours before trouble came to
paradise. The holiday weekend barely slowed the juggernaut of movie
production. After a momentary downturn in the early 1930s, business
was booming. Movie attendance shot up 15 percent in 1934, and most
studios had increased their earnings 100 percent over the previous year.
MGM showed a profit of about $1.5 million for the second quarter alone.
Dozens of stars, old and new, brightened the Hollywood skies. Emigre
writers and directors arrived nearly every day—some escaping impover-
ishment or chilly weather on the East Coast, others fleeing Hitlerism in
Unpredictable but profitable, Hollywood was, in the words of Walter
Winchell, "a nut farm on a paying basis." It was hard for even the daily
trade papers to keep track of all the activity. C. B. DeMille, whose
“Cleopatra” had just opened in New York, contemplated “The Crusades.”
MGM rushed ahead with a sequel to its successful “The Thin Man.”  Warner
Brothers prepared Sinclair Lewis's “Babbitt,” and Fox was set to remake
“A Tale of Two Cities.” After the most extensive talent hunt in history—over two
thousand kids considered—David Selznick picked Freddie Bartholo-
mew to star in “David Copperfield.” Over on the Left side of town, King
Vidor was finally ready to serve up “Our Daily Bread,” and Charlie
Chaplin would soon start shooting his long-awaited film set in a factory.
Putting his own political troubles aside—he had just been branded a
Communist sympathizer—Jimmy Cagney starred in “The Perfect Week-
end.” Garbo shot “The Painted Veil.” Shirley Temple seemed to finish a
movie every month as the studios attempted to exploit her sudden
preeminence at the box office.

California's first drive-in cinema was set to open September 9.
"This is the theatre," Variety explained incredulously, "at which patrons
 view the show from seats in their automobiles." Another dubious innovation,
called Technicolor, was being refined over at Pioneer Pictures, which had
produced several shorts utilizing the process and promised to finish
eight full-length features over the following year.
With so much sunshine to enjoy, gossip to absorb, and money to
make, why would the moguls, most of whom had fled the dark and dirty
East Coast years ago, give it all up because of one crackpot politician?
Producers and high-bracketed Hollywood salary earners, according to
Variety, feared that under Upton Sinclair's EPIC scheme, taxation
would fall "particularly heavy" on the film industry. And so "switching
of much film production from California to New York" was now being
How would the readers of Variety react? Would they pigeonhole this
report as fact, rumor, or propaganda? Would they even care enough to
take it seriously? Contrary to popular perception, the number of high
rollers in Hollywood was minuscule. Of the thirty thousand movie
workers and movie-makers, perhaps only i percent fit this bill. The great
mass of bit actors, assistant directors, prop makers, sound men, and
wardrobe people each made less than three thousand dollars a year.
Hollywood was, in addition, notoriously—proudly—apolitical. Its so-
cial consciousness was admittedly askew. It was a town where the only
discussion of the Tom Mooney case revolved around what kind of movie deal
the convict might get when he emerged from San Quentin; whose con-
cerns about Nazism extended little further than Germany's threat to ban
Shirley Temple's latest picture.

Will Rogers didn't call Hollywood "cuckooland" for nothing.

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