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The Forty-year Run

June 2024
21min read

William Randolph Hearst was a journalist, politician, art collector, and bon vivant with a passion for power, possessions, and women. 

In 1935 Fortune magazine published a profile of the Hearst empire, which said that William Randolph Hearst’s assets—twenty-eight newspapers, thirteen magazines, eight radio stations, two movie companies, inestimable art treasures, real estate, fourteen thousand shares of the Homestake Mine, and two million acres of land were worth $220 million.

But Fortune also noted that because of taxes and other debits in books that it was not permitted to see, the Hearst Corporation might soon be short of cash. The taxes, of course, were imposed by that hated man in the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., for which Hearst would have gladly traded his California castle; his Bavarian Village in Wyntoon, California; his mistress Marion Davies’s beach “cottage” at Malibu; his castle at St. Donat in Wales; his Long Island estate; his New York apartment; his two cloisters from Spain; and his Brooklyn warehouse with all its treasures.

This century’s most famous newspaper publisher wasn’t really a newspaper publisher at all. He was the next President of the United States.

But Hearst never made it to the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom perhaps only H. L. Mencken hated more than Hearst did, had laid out a tax program about which he once smiled at Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and said, “That is for Hearst.” Two years after the Fortune article, the Hearst Corporation did go bankrupt. Hearst had to start selling newspapers, relinquish control of what was left of his propaganda machine, and take a pay cut from five hundred thousand dollars a year to one hundred thousand. As his father said in 1887 when one of his employees told him that in a good year a hundred thousand dollars would be about what voung Willie might make from that paper he wanted to run, “Hell, that ain’t no money!”

And the question could quite rightly be asked: How had a man who had built the greatest publicity machine in history not only gone bankrupt but become so hated in his country that the Hearst Pathé News had to eliminate “Hearst” from its logo because people hissed when his name came on the screen? In 1936 the historian Charles A. Beard wrote of Hearst that “even school boys and girls by the thousands now scorn his aged image and cankered heart,” and six thousand people went to the Hippodrome Theater in New York City to stage a mass trial of Hearst, with Minnesota’s governor Hjalmar Peterson leading off by charging him with “being guilty in the first degree of attempting to destroy democracy.”

The man who has given the most thought to the career of William Randolph Hearst is W. A. Swanberg, whose monumental biography, Citizen Hearst , appeared in 1961. He surveyed all the obituaries written at the time of Hearst’s death and noted that the man baffled most of his contemporaries. “They were saying that he was great—somehow—but they could not explain why.” After five hundred pages of chronicling his life, Swanberg concluded that Hearst was really two people and wrote two obituaries, casting them in Shakespearean terms—Hearst the Prospero and Hearst the Caliban.

In fact, Hearst was not two men but several: Hearst the journalist, Hearst the politician, Hearst the art collector, and Hearst the man— bon vivant , husband, and lover—each one living a life of tremendous passions, for power, possessions, women. But if we had to choose the real William Randolph Hearst, which one would it be?

Without any doubt, it would be Hearst the politician. To understand William Randolph Hearst, you have to understand his obsession with being President. And in his political career, which lasted nearly forty years, Hearst had more impact on American public life than many politicians who did make it to the White House.

William Randolph Hearst, who lived to see the dawn of the atomic age, was born before the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863. His father was a rough-and-ready prospector who at one time held controlling interest in two of the richest mines in the country—Anaconda and Homestake. His mother, Phoebe, was a schoolteacher. Their only son was still small when George Hearst commented most prophetically: “There’s one thing sure about my boy, Bill. I’ve been watching him and notice that when he wants cake, he wants cake and he wants it now. And I notice that after a while he gets the cake.”

Willie, as he was later called, went to oublie schools in San Francisco and was then sent East to St. Paul’s, in New Hampshire. But the most important thing that happened in his youth was the trips he took with his mother to Europe, where, in a sense, he became both a populist and a monarchist. “The poor classes are so terribly poor,” Phoebe wrote her husband. “Willie wanted to give away all his money & clothes, too.” At the same time, he was carried away with medieval art and antiques and became a collector at the age of ten. He also told his mother he wanted to live in Windsor Castle and asked her to buy him the Louvre.

At the proper time Willie went off to Harvard. Although he had a high voice, “like the fragrance of violets made audible,” in the description of Ambrose Bierce (a longtime Hearst employee), he was tall and muscular, energetic and enthusiastic. He was also shy, abhorred public speaking, and had an eye for the girls, eventually taking up with a Cambridge waitress named Tessie Powers, the mistress of a rich friend, with whom he lived for years.

He was a dedicated enough prankster to get himself expelled for good toward the end of his junior year. But by then he had found what would eventually become his ostensible vocation, journalism, although he told his father if he failed at that, “I shall so into politics.”

Told he seemed to admire the early leaders who were great autocrats, Hearst said he thought Julius Caesar was democratic.

In 1880 Hearst’s father had bought the Democratic San Francisco Examiner , which constantly lost money but which George Hearst kept because of its value to his political career. Willie received the paper at school and became one of its severest critics. He wrote his father a long, perceptive letter outlining what was wrong with the paper and what he would do to correct it. The letter must have appalled its recipient, who realized that Willie had found something that really interested him. The senior Hearst always wanted him to do something important, like run a mine or a ranch.

In addition to his acquired interest in journalism, he told Lincoln Steffens during an interview for a landmark 1906 article in American Magazine , “I read history a great deal.… I studied especially the great political crises—Alexander’s and Caesar’s and Napoleon’s and in American history the great Democratic leaders Jeffer son, Jackson and Lincoln.” When Steffens commented that he seemed to admire the early leaders who were great autocrats, Hearst said he thought Julius Caesar was a democratic leader. He had fused in his mind the relationship between strong leadership and democracy.


When he left Harvard, Hearst asked his father to give him the Examiner to run, but his father said no: “It’s a sure loser.” So he went to New York and took a job as a cub reporter with the New York World , which Joseph Pulitzer had turned into a financial success. Young Hearst knew he could do the same thing with the Examiner , if only—. And then George Hearst gave in: Willie got the newspaper.

During Hearst’s eight years of running the paper (at the cost of an estimated $8 million), he championed the oppressed, discovering, as Steffens said, “that there was room at the bottom”; he fought the Southern Pacific Railroad, the trusts, the corrupt party bosses, the crooked city halls, the water companies. When a San Francisco water company official visited the Examiner office and offered a huge bribe to stop a story, the editor threw him out. But Hearst said: “You’re a fool. Why didn’t you take the money and keep up the fight.… He would never have dared say a word about it.”


Was he kidding, or did he mean it? And there were other concerns. A city editor named Alien Kelly became perhaps the first Hearstman to complain that his boss wanted him to slant the news to include “unwarranted insinuations.” He was transp ferred to feature assignments.

Years later the British writer Piers Brandon, conducting research for a book on the press, found in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley letters suggesting how malleable Hearst felt his stock in trade was. “The modern editor of the popular journal,” Hearst wrote, “does not care for facts. The editor wants novelty. The editor has no objections to facts if they are also novel. But he would prefer novelty that is not fact, to a fact that is not a novelty.”

In short, as A. J. Liebling said, Hearst “changed the rules of journalism.” And perhaps the biggest change was his injection of huge amounts of his father’s money into his papers—not to make more money but to increase circulation and not to enable him to sell more advertising at higher rates (although he did that) but to expand his communications network.

The biographer Ferdinand Lundberg demonstrated that Hearst could have made more money by keeping his three most profitable publications and selling the rest. And Liebling, commenting on Hearst’s losing $21 million to suDDort one paper in Atlanta, said that “the prerequisite for losing $21 million is not genius; it is to have $21 million.” But Hearst did not want to make money, he wanted to be President. Nevertheless, Senator Hearst was not happy with his son’s spending, and when he died in 1891, he left his $18 million fortune to Phoebe.

Meanwhile, Hearst told one friend that he considered “journalism an enchanted playground in which giants and dragons were to be slain simply for the fun of the thing.” Now, after making a success of the Examiner , he wanted to buy The New York Times or the Chicago Record , but they were too expensive, and his mother would not put up the money. In time, though, Willie prevailed, and Phoebe sold her share of Anaconda Copper for $7.5 million and gave it to her son. In 1885 Hearst bought the New York Journal for $180,000 and challenged the World for supremacy in New York.

The new owner immediately let Pulitzer know that money was no object by lowering the price of the Journal from two cents to one cent, and raiding the World staff, offering salaries double what Pulitzer paid.

Another raid on the World staff gave the language a new phrase. In the early days of the Hearst-Pulitzer war, the entire Sunday staff, including the cartoonist R. F. Outcault, defected to the Journal . Outcault was the creator of Hogan‘s Alley , a comic strip featuring a gap-toothed, yellow-smocked New York street youngster called the Yellow Kid. And he was so popular that the World had to hire the cartoonist George Luks to do another strip, giving both papers a Yellow Kid. So New Yorkers began calling the PulitzerHearst brand of newspapering “yellow journalism.”

In those early days at the Journal , Hearst still commanded respect from his colleagues and the progressive muckrakers, and he was great at writing credos: “I consider a newspaper to be the retained attorney for the public, and I believe a newspaper which is faithless to that trust is as much of a traitor as an attorney who betrays the interest of the client who employs him.”

But Hearst’s main goal was to outdo his chosen rival. The World wrote about murders with ghoulish delight, but Hearst sent Journal reporters out to solve the murder—and then took credit for it. And when Cuban patriots rebelled against Spain, the World and Journal competed fiercely to exploit the situation. Hearst won hands down, along the way sending one of the most famous cables in the history of journalism to the illustrator Frederic Remington who was in Cuba covering the insurrection for the Journal : YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LL FURNISH THE WAR .


And he did: the Spanish-American War of 1898, “our war,” as Hearst referred to it with his staff. He staged a number of phony stories to get the country ready, and then, when the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, the Journal immediately indieted Spain, although to this day there is no evidence that the Spanish did so stupid a thing.


The brief conflict taught Hearst and Pulitzer very different lessons. For the World ’s publisher, it was a realization that the press was going in the wrong direction—and he had had enough. He never visited the famous goldendomed Pulitzer building on Park Row but had his top executives read the assembled staff the new gospel: “The cardinal principle, the basic idea which made it possible to rear this great modern contribution to modern journalism, the Pulitzer building, is truthfulness and absolute accuracy.… Sensational? Yes, when the news is sensational”—but every story must be truthful. And Pulitzer meant it. By the 1920s the World was the place to work in American journalism.

Hearst’s reaction was the opposite. The outbreak of war had put him “in a state of proud ecstasy,” said one newspaperman, because Hearst knew he had forced President McKinley into a war he didn’t want, and later he realized that he had virtually created McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, by handing him the war and then glamorizing his charge up San Juan Hill.

Hearst had tasted the power and knew where it came from. On February 17, 1898, he printed an editorial in the Journal that came as close as anything ever did to explaining Hearst the journalist. Newspapers, he said, were the “greatest force in civilization.” They could “form and express public opinion,” “suggest and control legislation,” “declare wars,” “punish criminals,” and, as representative of the people, “control the nation.”

By early in the twentieth century, Hearst had begun to think seriously about controlling the nation in a more direct manner. He started attending Tammany meetings and political dinners. At first no one took him seriously, but in 1900 the National Association of Democratic Clubs elected him president—in exchange for his agreeing to start a Democratic paper in Chicago. He fulfilled his part of the bargain by founding the Evening American , a task he accomplished—as he had in New York—by almost doubling the wage scale for reporters in the city.

So now he had three newspapers with which to attack President McKinley for his refusal to renounce the trusts. And, as usual, the Hearstmen went too far. When Kentucky’s governor-elect, William Goebel, was shot and killed in an election quarrel, Ambrose Bierce responded in his Journal column with a savage quatrain:

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast Cannot be found in all the West. Good reason, it is speeding here To stretch McKinley on his bier.

The Journal ’s attack on McKinley became so virulent that Hearst had to send an aide to Washington to apologize to the President. But then a Journal editorial declared, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, the killing must be done.” When Hearst heard about it, he stopped the presses and had the offensive lines removed. But his enemies would not forget that a Hearst paper had called for the assassination of an American President.

From 1904 on, Hearst saw his newspapers not as a voice to plead the cause of the common man but as tools to secure the Presidency.

In June 1900 Hearst again saw the power of the press—his press—when the Republicans nominated Theodore Roosevelt for Vice President over the mild opposition of President McKinley and the heavy opposition of Mark Hanna and the GOP conservatives. Hanna wrote the President after the convention, “Your duty to the Country is to live four years from next March.”

The month following, at the Democratic convention, Hearst was for William Jennings Bryan, although Hearst was against free silver and, like Roosevelt, was an imperialist, which Bryan was not. But Bryan was against the trusts, and Hearst went along with him, overcoming his distaste for public speaking and giving some speeches for the Great Commoner. Hearst was getting ready for 1904.

McKinley and TR won, and the following year, of course, McKinley was murdered. The first anti-Hearst reaction came from his enemies in the press who printed his papers’ deathwish items as well as their ugly antiMcKinley cartoons. Hearst was burned in effigy; there were threats against his life, and he started carrying a pistol; some organizations called for the banning of the Journal . But Hearst remained convinced that he was a man of destiny and his destiny was inseparable from the nation’s.

He changed the name of his paper to American and Journal , and with Tammany’s help Hearst ended up the congressional candidate from the Eleventh District in Manhattan. The Eleventh was a Tammany district, and victory was certain. But Hearst and his papers went all out; he was after a greater quarry.

He started wearing more subdued suits (“Of late,” reported a colleague, “his dress has been the usual uniform of American statesmanship, combining the long frock coat and the cowboy’s soft slouch hat”) and to cap the image of probity, he married a beautiful young woman named Millicent Willson. But this latter came too late; for the rest of his political life opponents would call him a playboy who corrupted women and lived with them out of wedlock.

He also broadened his communications network by buying the Los Angeles Examiner . But when Congressman Hearst went to Washington in 1903, he simply did not get along with his colleagues. He co not compromise. He tried to run the Congress the way he ran his newspaper. “The Hearst Presidential boom,” I writes Swanberg, “now in full cry, was the joke of the new century.”


Hearst workers, however, were going from state to state lining up delegates for 1904, and their boss started another newspaper—the Boston American —to broaden still further his network in an important population center where he was not well known. And the money kept pouring out of the “Hearst barrel.” Said one politician: “Perhaps we shall never know how much money was spent, but if as much money was expended elsewhere as in Indiana a liberal fortune was squandered.”

Hearst had thirty liberal fortunes, and they helped buy 263 votes at the Democratic convention in St. Louis in 1904—the closest he ever got to his obsession. In the end, however, Judge Alton Brooks Parker won the nomination, and Henry G. Davis was picked as his running mate. The rumors of Hearst’s profligate purchasing of delegates played a role in his defeat, but what hurt him most was his reputation as a womanizer. It cost him Bryan’s support, which was essential.

It was also a turning point for Hearst. From this time hence he saw his newspapers not as a voice to plead the cause of the common man but as tools to secure the Presidency.

Hearst supported Parker in 1904, and although the judge lost, Hearst was re-elected to Congress. But he began to move away from the Democrats and would soon start his own party of real “Jeffersonian Democrats”—the Independence League (later party). In his second term in Congress, he became a little more effective. He developed the “Hearst Brigade” of loyal congressmen—the most important for Hearst, as it turned out, being John Nance “Jack” Garner of Texas, who saw in him presidential timber.

At the same time, Hearst’s men in New York were playine out another journalistic story that would reveal as much about Hearst’s political passions as any single thing he did. Two young men, James Wilkins and Charles Stump, had stolen some letters from John D. Archbold, a vice president of Standard Oil and close associate of John D. Rockefeller. They thought the letters might bring some money, considering how often Standard Oil was in the newspapers, and contacted an American editor. He said he was not interested in these letters but would be interested in any between Archbold and a public official—and even supplied Wilkins and Stump with a list of two hundred public officials whose correspondence with Archbold he would like to see. Eventually the two men stole enough letters and sold them to Hearst to enable them to open a saloon on Seventh Avenue. And the letters were worth it because they revealed that Archbold was indeed Standard Oil’s chief political operative and had made payments in cash to legislators in return for favorable legislation.

Any real journalist, having rationalized the use of stolen letters for the good of the commonweal, would rush his scoop into print. But politics was Hearst’s game, not journalism; some of the politicians implicated were Democrats, and he would need their support in 1906 and 1908; others were critics of Roosevelt whom he did not wish to silence. So he decided to keep the letters under wraps until they would do him the most good—which turned out to be three years later, when a presidential campaign was beginning.

In 1906 Hearst was ready to run for governor of New York—which is where Lincoln Steffens enters the picture, because everyone knew Hearst’s race for the governorship was but a step toward the White House.


The thing that impressed Steffens most in his American article, “Hearst the Man of Mystery,” was his subject’s total self-reliance and indifference to what others thought or did or said about him: “He counts on himself and his own. Have your baseball nine, run your own publications, organize your own political party. That’s the way to get done the things that you want to have done. Do it yourself.”

And how did he do it? With his money and his newspapers, said Steffens, maintaining that Hearst had admitted “he wanted circulation not for the profit but for the power. He regards his newspapers as a means to that end.” And what was that end? “I mean to restore democracy in the United States.”


But, reported Steffens, “Mr. Hearst said ‘I’ and he means ‘I.’” He wanted to give the people democracy the way other rich men give them schools, libraries, hospitals. Hearst would “do things.” But Steffens stressed that “the things he says he would do are not bad, they are right. If democracy in the United States is to be restored, they are absolutely necessary.”

However, Steffens concluded that “Mr. Hearst does not personify the new American spirit.” Hearst was a boss—a “boss who would like to give us democratic government.… But we don’t want Mr. Hearst to give us ‘democratic government.’… We want to get that for ourselves.”

It was a curious article. When it came out, Theodore Roosevelt—who called Hearst “the most potent force for evil we have in our life”—told William Howard Taft “that ’tho faintly condemning [Hearst] it is in reality an endorsement.” This would have pleased Steffens: twenty-six years later, when he published his Autobiography , he confessed that in the article “I did not say what I really thought.” He was too much influenced by the American editors who wanted him to write an “exposé” of Hearst. “I compromised in it with my colleagues to keep my job,” said Steffens. Nevertheless, he added, “I did not understand myself then what a part dictatorship has to play in democracy.” As long as Hearst was on the side of the little man, Steffens thought he was a “great man.”

In 1906 Hearst made a deal with Tammany to get the Democratic nomination for governor of New York, and his papers turned to attacking his Republican opponent, the progressive Charles Evans Hughes, whom Hearst had once supported. It was an ugly campaign, and as election day approached, the Republicans became frightened, and President Roosevelt sent his Secretary of State, Elihu Root, to New York to enter the fray. Root attacked Hearst’s personal life and said that President Roosevelt personally held Hearst responsible for the assassination of President McKinley.

The excesses of his past had caught up with the publisher. Hearst was defeated by 58,000 votes out of 1,500,000 cast. And he knew the importance of this loss. Among other things, it cost him his seat in the Congress, which he had to give up to run for governor. For the first time in his life he became uncharacteristically bitter and even lost interest in public life. “I won’t look at a paper, not even French papers,” he wrote his mother from Paris the following summer. “I have the same aversion to news that I once had for stewed pears.”

That Hearst, however, still planned to play a major role in the nation’s affairs could be seen from the fact that in 1907 he refused to sell his Boston American , despite its continual losses. Another presidential election year was coming.

In 1908 it was Bryan again for the Democrats and William Howard Taft for the Republicans. Hearst still controlled the Independence party, but knowing it could not be a major force he declined its presidential nomination and chose instead Thomas Hisgen, a Massachusetts businessman who had once battled Standard Oil and won. Hearst hoped that having Hisgen on the ticket would help dramatize his trump card—the stolen Archbold letters. They bombed. Their revelations hurt the careers of a few politicians and ruined one—Sen. Joseph Foraker (R-Ohio)—but they had little real impact on the campaign, for they implicated both major political parties equally. Taft was elected. The Socialist third-party candidate, Eueene Debs, received 420,000-plus votes, and as the fourth-party candidate Hisgen received 86,000-plus votes, one-third of them in New York City. Hearst was openly identified with Hisgen. It was another humiliating defeat, and he was known for a while as William Also-Ran-dolph Hearst.

The campaign got ugly. Hearst said Smith killed babies; Smith called Hearst “this pestilence that walks in the darkness.”

Hearst was undaunted. He made plans to run for lieutenant governor of New York, but his Independence party collapsed. One of his lieutenants, Moses Koenigsberg, was continually traveling around the country, trying to feed what he called Hearst’s “obsession for the ownership of a newspaper in every advantageous center in America [so] he could command the performance of any program he favored.” One center of weakness was the South; Hearst tried to correct this with the addition of the Atlanta Georgian , which would cost him more millions to operate. Along the way, Koenigsberg sold Hearst comics, columns, and cartoons, ultimately developing perhaps Hearst’s most enduring contribution to journalism—syndicated features.

With his Independence party dead, Hearst returned to the Democratic party. In 1912 he supported House Speaker Champ Clark for the Presidency, all the while watching for the opportunity for a “dark horse” (himself) to emerge. New Jersey’s governor, Woodrow Wilson, was the strongest challenger, so Hearst put Alfred Henry Lewis to work writing hatchet pieces about the governor and published some new Archbold letters in Hearst’s Magazine . But Clark’s association with Hearst hurt him at the Baltimore convention, and with Bryan supporting Wilson, the governor passed the Speaker on the thirtieth ballot and went on to the nomination and Hearst’s coveted White House.

In 1916, for the first time in twenty years, Hearst took no active part in the presidential process. His papers supported Wilson on their editorial pages but also ran stories attacking him, and Hearst made himself more unpopular than ever when his New York American tried to argue that the sinking of the Lusitania had been justified. When war came, Hearst supported it, but his critics successfully branded him pro-German.

In 1917 he maneuvered his man, John F. Hylan, into the New York mayor’s office, which would make Hearst one of New York’s most powerful “bosses” for several years. But at the Democratic State Convention in Saratoga, Hearst was eliminated as a nominee for anything when someone introduced a resolution directly aimed at him. It called for the party to “repudiate every truckler with our country’s enemies.”


Meanwhile, two things were happening in Hearst’s personal life that would have lasting impact. In 1919 Phoebe Hearst died, leaving her son an estimated $11 million. And her heir was deeply in love. In 1917 Hearst had seen a young girl in the Ziegfeld Follies chorus who, it was said, inspired him to attend the show every night for eight weeks running. Her name was Marion Davies, and she would become his lover for the next thirty-four years. Hearst also began his “movie career,” a combined effort to make Miss Davies America’s most beloved star and to become as dominant in this new medium he was in his old one.

And his newspaper network was still building; in 1917 he added the Washington Times to his stable. The Hearst papers supported Al Smith for governor in New York in 1918, but shortly after Smith took office, Hearst attacked him for the “milk scandal,” charging that Smith’s failure to do anything about the price of milk (over which the governor had no control) was resulting in “starving babies” in New York. When the roar of the Hearst press became unendurable, Smith hired Carnegie Hall and challenged Hearst to a debate. Hearst failed to show up, so Smith took the podium alone and delivered a brutal attack, calling Hearst “this pestilence that walks in the darkness.” Smith emerged from Carnegie Hall a presidential candidate.

In 1920 the Democrats nominated James M. Cox of Ohio, and Hearst offered to support him in return for beine appointed Secretary of the Navy. Cox would not commit himself. Hearst also went to Chicago to try to help start a third party. Smith was defeated for re-election as governor that year but was a candidate again in 1922, as was Hearst, who, in anticipation, bought two upstate papers, the Rochester Evening Journal and the Syracuse Evening Telegram . Negotiations in the smokefilled rooms at Syracuse became byzantine. Charles F. Murphy, the powerful party boss, tried to force Smith to run for the Senate to enable him to give the gubernatorial nomination to Hearst. But Smith, still smarting from Hearst’s efforts to paint him as a childmurderer, refused to run on the same ticket and threatened another Carnegie Hall speech on the floor of the convention. Hearst withdrew.


In 1924, with President Coolidge, who had replaced Harding, a shoo-in for the Republican nomination, Hearst did not attend the Republican convention. At the Democratic convention he mostly engaged himself in trying to stop Smith. He also opposed the nominee, John W. Davis, but again offered his support in exchange for the Navy cabinet job and again got no commitment. On the basis of his past record, he certainly should have supported the Progressive movement headed by Wisconsin’s senator Robert La Follette. But by now Hearst was in his sixties and finally more preoccupied with the never-ending job of building San Simeon than he was with politics. Although he considered both Coolidge and Davis too conservative, he supported Coolidge. La Follette was “a little too radical.”

By 1928 Hearst was living permanently in California and apparently had become a Republican. His man at the Republican convention that year was a fellow millionaire, Andrew Mellon, who took a no-nonsense attitude about keeping taxes low. But when Mellon faded, Hearst supported Hoover, who won easily with the support of the Hearst papers.

By 1932 Hearst could tell a colleague that if anyone offered him a public office, he would consider it grounds for “justifiable homicide.” Thus, ironically, he was ready for his greatest political coup.

After four years Hearst had become violently rlisenrhanterl with the man he had supported in 1928. When it became clear that Hoover would be nominated again, Hearst shifted his attention to the Democratic convention, although he did not attend it. His man was the former member of the “Hearst brigade” in Congress, Texas’s Jack Garner. Hearst went on NBC radio to campaign for him, saying that what we needed in 1932 was a man whose guiding motto was “America First.”


Overnight Garner became a serious candidate, which prompted the frontrunner, Franklin Roosevelt, to make a speech declaring that he was not an internationalist. But Hearst had started a boom for Garner that would win the Texan the California delegation, sending Garner to the convention with two powerful blocs of votes.

On the third ballot Garner was third but in a position to use his votes to swing the convention. Roosevelt was first, and Al Smith second, with Woodrow Wilson’s lieutenant Newton D. Baker the dark horse. Hearst still felt cool toward FDR, but the alternatives were worse. So in a series of telephone calls from San Simeon, Hearst persuaded Garner to switch to FDR (with no apparent promise of the Vice Presidency, although that came later), and Roosevelt became the nominee and soon President.

That was the high point in Hearst’s political career. It was also perhaps his greatest blunder, for he would spend the next twelve years hating Roosevelt more bitterly than any of all the candidates he had worked against.

William Randolph Hearst played a major role in American politics, quite possibly longer than any major politician in this country’s history. Hearst the journalist, the North American Review said in 1906, was “a blazing disgrace to his craft,” and responsible journalists echoed the sentiment throughout the first half of this century. But they missed the point: Hearst was not really a journalist. He said as much, not long before his death, in 1951: “If I had my life to live over again I would be a newspaperman and merely try to be a better one.”

But perhaps that was never really an option. What Swanberg called Hearst’s presidential “hunger” may well have been too powerful for any immersion in newspapering to assuage. And that hunger was never satisfied. At least one colleague—Hearst’s lawyer, John Francis Neyland—said, “Had he not been able to turn to some diversion like the building of San Simeon, I think he would have gone crazy.”

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