NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Posted: October 21, 2010 12:36 AM

Greg Mitchell on Tuesday started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist -- the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair -- leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history -- swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first "attack ads" on the screen -- thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it "The Campaign of the Century" (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. These daily reports for HuffPost match the same date in 1934, as one of the dirtiest, most influential -- and most entertaining -- campaigns reached its final days. (Read Monday's intro piece here and catch up with the past two here. ) Along the way we'll hear from many other famous figures involved in the race.


October 21, 1934 -- In a recent note to his old friend and sparring partner Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken threatened to write another column on the California campaign, and when he finally did it, he outdid himself. Sinclair professed faith in the common man, of course, while the Sage of Baltimore considered 99% of such species "imbeciles" who were "doomed to be diddled forever." Mencken had already endorsed Sinclair solely on this basis: "it always amusing to see a utopian in office."

Now his latest syndicated piece appeared today in Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner under the title NATION WATCHING SINCLAIR GULPING DOWN QUACK CURES. Upton Sinclair had been swallowing magic potions since the turn of the century, Henry Mencken declared, and now he was at it again in California. "It would be hard to find in all history a more assiduous consumer of goods of that sort," he observed. "The bottle is never too black for him, nor the flavor too bitter.

"Now he gives himself the treat of his life by compounding a cocktail of all the political shampoos and economic wart-removers ever heard of, and getting it down at one gulp with a rousing ah-h-h-h! To Sinclair it is no more formidable than four fingers of radiator alcohol to a dry Congressman."

In the autumn of his years, Mencken hoped to spend a year or so compiling a list of all the great untruths Sinclair had believed in his time. It would run, Mencken predicted, to hundreds, and maybe even thousands, "a number so far beyond the bounds of ordinary probability that, aside from Sinclair himself, not more than half a dozen human beings have ever believed in them." Mencken was on one of his celebrated rolls.

"The truth is that Sinclair fits into the New Deal precisely. It almost seems to have been made for him. So far he is plainly its greatest story, with not a rival in sight. How many of its young professors get down its whole shelf of elixirs as eagerly and easily as he does? ....He swallows each and every invention of the Brain Trust lads the moment it comes out, with a noble smacking of the lips, and he always adds an invention of his own for good measure."

Even the thick-skinned Sinclair could not possibly consider this just another "love tap" from his friend in Baltimore. On studying the column, he must have regretted that he had once begged Mencken to "do anything" but ignore him.

Despite the escalating dirty tricks campaign against him, Sinclair still believed victory was around the corner but anxiously awaited the next FDR fireside chat scheduled for the next day when he expected the president to make good on his promise to endorse him or at least his End Poverty in California (EPIC) plan.

Tonight Will Rogers, America's most beloved and popular public figure (even including Roosevelt), on his national radio show joked that if Sinclair won San Francisco might "secede" from California, and if Frank Merriam was re-elected Los Angeles would secede. "And in case it's a tie," he advised, "why, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson is going to take up a collection. Or even if it ain't a tie." Rogers, a big FDR fan, in some of his columns and broadcasts slyly seemed to favor Sinclair, though always with humor, calling him "a darn nice fellow and plum smart."

Also on the radio tonight, Earl Warren, the GOP chairman, once again blasted Sinclair and his End Poverty in California crusade, calling the contest a showdown between "those who believe in the Constitution and in our Democratic institutions" and "those who would destroy both in favor of a foreign philosophy of government...It the issue between Americanism and extreme radicalism -- a communisitic radicalism..."

Meanwhile, outraged Sinclair supporters stormed the box office of a suburban Los Angeles theater following a screening of the first Inquiring Cameraman short -- the first election campaign attack ad to hit the screen -- demanding to see the manager. They labeled it political propaganda and demanded that the short be withdrawn. "I'm just a cog," the manager explained.

Apparently MGM and other studios had instructed theaters that they'd better run the Inquiring Cameraman short or risk losing forthcoming releases. After chatting with his boss on the telephone, the manager announced that the short would no longer be shown at his theater.

Scattered protests would not slow MGM's screen campaign, however. MGM cameramen, under the direction of Felix Feist, Jr., today visited the railroad yards out at Colton, near San Bernardino. Feist and his crew hoped to shoot some terrifying footage of transients arriving in California by boxcar, allegedly by invitation of Upton Sinclair.

For Feist, this was low-pressure work. It wasn't like shooting a newsreel, which had to capture a breaking event. If Feist couldn't find any EPIC hoboes out at Colton, why, he could create a few back home on the MGM lot. This was Hollywood, wasn't it?

A new edition of Mitchell's book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at: epic1934@aol.com.

 
 
 

Follow Greg Mitchell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GregMitch