- Historic Sites
How Media Politics Was Born
To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Recognizing the inadequacy of campaign tactics as they were then known, McKinley’s adviser Mark Hanna developed a plan and a national party organization that ushered political campaigns into the twentieth century. Tens of millions of leaflets, explaining McKinley’s positions, were mailed to voters around the country. Fourteen hundred pro-McKinley speakers took to the stump. Hanna raised huge sums of money by assessing banks and businesses a percentage of their assets or profits. Spies were installed at Bryan headquarters. “Republican writers and speakers,” Gordon C. Fite has observed, “exerted every effort to portray Bryan as a wild-eyed radical whose election on what they charged was a socialistic Democratic platform would destroy the American system.”
McKinley won by a narrow margin. Fund raising and party organization were, as Mark Hanna showed, everything. Until the 1930s not much had changed in political campaigns except for the limited use of radio.
What was new in 1934 was a political party’s utilization of media experts from outside the party apparatus, the manipulation of the print media to promote a wholly negative campaign, and the first use of motion pictures in a campaign. These developments signaled the approach of a era “when election specialists, hired out as mercenaries,” as Schlesinger put it, would play a larger role than the party itself in mobilizing voters.
There was something else unprecedented about the 1934 campaign to defeat Upton Sinclair: the cost. In the hotly contested 1932 race for President between Hoover and Roosevelt, each party had spent an estimated three million dollars across the country. Two years later the Republicans spent upward of three times that amount in just one state—California.
When news that Upton Sinclair was now favored to win the governorship reached Europe, William Randolph Hearst cut short a vacation in Germany to return to California, calling the Democratic candidate “an unbalanced and unscrupulous political speculator.” Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and the vice-chairman of the state Republican party, hurried home from France “to organize the fight of the film industry against Upton Sinclair’s candidacy for Governor,” according to a United Press dispatch. In northern California, the Alameda County district attorney, Earl Warren, who was also the Republican state chairman, took to the campaign trail, charging that Sinclairism was threatening “to overwhelm California with Communism.”
The Republican leaders recognized that they were up against a ground swell of grass-roots fervor. But they also knew that the man leading the movement was uniquely vulnerable to a smear campaign. In the Bible, Job says, “…that mine adversary had written a book!” Sinclair had written forty-seven of them. The thousands of his own overheated words would make him an easv mark for a hatchet job.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were flowing into a fund to defeat Sinclair, but the Republicans had little time to turn the tide. They would have to enlist expert assistance from outside the party ranks. To this end the GOP hierarchy hired two young political consultants, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, to help direct what Arthur Schlesinger has called “the first all-out public relations Blitzkrieg in American politics.”
With just two months remaining until the election, “we had to make a drastic change in public opinion,” as Whitaker later put it. For three days he and Baxter pored through dozens of Sinclair’s novels, compiling damaging quotations. A favorite gambit was to take something one of Sinclair’s villains had said and attribute it directly to the author. In this way, for example, Sinclair could be cited for calling disabled war veterans “good-for-nothing soldiers.”
After selecting the excerpts, Whitaker and Baxter hired an artist named Bill LeNoire, who incorporated them into a series of cartoons attacking “the blot of Sinclairism.” Whitaker and Baxter shipped the cartoons to newspapers around the state. At least three thousand appeared in print.
Two young political consultants pored through his novels, compiling damaging quotations to use against him. And they sent anti-Sinclair cartoons to newspapers all over the state.
“Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter said later. “But we had one objective: to keep him [Sinclair] from becoming Governor. But because he was a good man, we were sorry we had to do it that way.” The press agents, who later became key figures in dozens of California campaigns, also created a half-million-dollar radio assault on the EPIC candidate.