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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
Some of the interviews were legitimate; others were staged, using “bit” actors reading prepared scripts. The newsreels were just subtle enough to be effective. “Every screen fan in California,” The New Yorker later commented, “to prove that he was not a congenital idiot, was inclined to vote for Merriam.” Hard-core EPIC supporters, naturally, were angry. Outbursts in dozens of theaters forced some managers to stop showing the newsreels, “fearing wide-open terrorism,” according to Variety.
As a crowning blow, MGM, Fox, and possibly other studios produced newsreels showing an army of hoboes—or actors dressed in whiskers and rags—marching across California or arriving by rail, heading for the EPIC Utopia. A photograph showing the same migratory scene began appearing on the front pages of leading newspapers. Sharp-eyed readers identified the photo as a still from a recent movie, Wild Boys of the Road, provided to the newspapers by Warner Brothers.
There was more to the anti-Sinclair campaign. As much as ten million dollars may have been spent to defeat the EPIC candidate—a record for a state campaign that would stand for forty years. The funds were used to create front groups, print leaflets, and pay for countless newspaper ads and radio programs, all under the direction of Whitaker, Baxter, and Lord & Thomas. EPIC supporters were referred to as a “maggot-like horde.” Sinclair was called a “dynamiter of all churches,” and since he was often confused with Sinclair Lewis, he had to answer for Elmer Gantry as well.
As the campaign wound down, activities on both sides reached a fever pitch. There were now two thousand EPIC clubs, and the EPIC News ’s circulation had reached one and a half million. “A sense of Armageddon hangs in the bland California air,” The New York Times observed in the waning days of the race. Thousands of leaflets featuring a drawing of a bearded Russian waving a red flag over a map of California were distributed.
Considering the imaginative and unprecedented campaign waged against him, the wonder is not that Upton Sinclair lost but that he managed to draw nearly nine hundred thousand votes. Merriam’s total topped Sinclair’s by more than a quarter of a million, but EPIC candidates did win thirty seats in the state legislature.
After the 1934 election Sinclair retired from politics, wrote a book entitled I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked, and returned to his calling as a novelist. The EPIC organization tried to carry on but was almost completely absorbed by the Democratic party. Yet Sinclair’s crusade had a lasting impact. EPIC made California a true two-party state for the first time and set the state’s Democrats on a liberal course that continues to this day. Several EPIC activists were later elected to Congress; they included Augustus Hawkins, who still sits in Washington, and Jerry Voorhis. Sinclair’s running mate, Sheridan Downey—the ticket was lampooned as “Uppie and Downey”—was sent to the U.S. Senate in 1938. (The young Richard Nixon ended Voorhis’s congresisional career in 1946 and then won a seat in the Senate in 1950 when Downey stepped down.) And Hollywood’s shameful performance during the Sinclair campaign galvanized support for the new Screen Writers Guild.
In 1938 Culbert Olson, a former EPIC candidate, was elected the first Democratic governor of California in almost forty years. His reform proposals, some based on EPIC ideas, were blocked by the GOP-led legislature, and four years later in his race for reelection, he was defeated by Earl Warren.
On a national level EPIC was almost equally influential. At the end of 1934 Harry Hopkins, soon to head the Works Progress Administration, proposed a program called End Poverty in America, which The New York Times said “differs from Mr. Sinclair’s in detail but I not in principle.” Sinclair’s big vote was one of several factors that convinced Roosevelt it was time to push for Social Security legislation. FDR also sent to Congress in 1935 a measure that embraced many EPIC proposals: a gift tax, graduated corporate and income taxes, and increased inheritance taxes. Sinclair’s call for state support of artists anticipated Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project.