In the lead up to Election Day, Greg Mitchell will be 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 -- won the Democratic primary for governor of California in a landslide 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 when one of the dirtiest, most influential -- and most entertaining -- campaigns reached its final days. (Read yesterday's intro piece here.) Along the way we'll hear from many other famous figures involved in the race, from FDR to Katharine Hepburn and H.L. Mencken.
October 19, 1934 -- The new issue of Time magazine has reached California, and it features Upton Sinclair on the cover. "No politician since Williams Jennings Bryan," the article declares, "has so horrified and outraged the Vested Interests. Those whose stakes in California are greatest hold themselves personally responsible to their class throughout the nation to smash Upton Sinclair." They see him "an evangel of nonsense...an agent of Moscow."
The race with GOP incumbent Frank "Old Baldy" Merriam? Time calls it a toss-up, but Sinclair felt certain he would win if President Roosevelt endorsed him, as promised, in his next fireside chat, coming up in three days.
As the unprecedented dirty tricks drive against Sinclair explodes -- part of the first major election campaign largely turned over to outside experts, agitators and consultants -- newspapers publish the opening statement from the state's GOP chief, Earl Warren.
"This is no longer a campaign between the Republican Party and the Democratic party in California," Warren, the district attorney in Alameda County, declares, in announcing he would now take a very active role in the campaign. "It is a crusade of Americans and Californians against Radicalism and Socialism....These attackers must be repulsed....We are Americans, loyal to the faith of our forefathers, and true to the standard of freedom and equality of individual opportunity which our Constitution so nobly represents."
In the most ambitious direct mailing for a political race in America, tens of millions of anti-Sinclair leaflets are making mail boxes groan around the state. They were created by the front group United for California in the south, and the California League Against Sinclairism in the north, run by the nation's first "political consultant," Clem Whitaker.
Each mailing is targeted at a particular voting group, from doctors to the American Legion. Sinclair was a "dynamiter of all churches" and his End Poverty in California (EPIC) plan was nothing less than "plain Communism." Most feature damaging out-of-context quotes from Sinclair, and if none could be found, from characters in his novels.
Screenwriters, actors, and all other studio employees in Hollywood, meanwhile, have just received notice that the studio bosses -- except for the Warner Brothers -- were demanding that they yield at least one day's pay for the slush fund to defeat Sinclair. Most had no choice -- the money was deducted from their paychecks. While nearly all of the moguls are reactionaries, most of the writers are not, and so they face an ethical dilemma -- fearing they would get booted out of town if they refuse to go along with the scheme.
Tonight, the "Merriam tax" was the main topic of conversation at a Hollywood dinner attended by, among others, Dorothy Parker (then writing from MGM) and Nunnally Johnson (20th Century). Sinclair was invited to attend with his screenwriter friend Frank Scully but could not make it.
Parker recounted a recent phone call from an MGM exec who wondered whether she was really serious about joining the Authors' League for Sinclair.
"Never more so," she'd replied.
"But you're cutting your own throat," the exec had said.
"I doubt if that's important," Dottie responded, "or anyway not as important as this election."
Jimmy Cagney was the top star to resist the "tax" so far. He claimed that he had told his boss that he would not hand over one day's pay for Merriam--he might even donate a full week's worth to Sinclair.
Then there was the case of young writer Billy Wilder over at the Fox studio. Wilder, who was still trying to salvage Raoul Walsh's East River, had just received his latest paycheck, normally $250, only to find $50 missing.
"There's something wrong," Billy said to the studio cashier in his heavily accented English. "There's been a mistake."
"There was no mistake," she replied. "They took fifty dollars from everyone to give to Governor Merriam."
Billy didn't know what this was all about, but he knew one thing: he desperately needed that fifty dollars to make the rent on his tiny room at the Chateau Marmont and to pay for his English lessons--he had recently fled Austria and the Hitler menace. So he cornered a studio exec.
"Will you please explain?" Wilder asked. "I'm just here on a visa, I'm not interested in politics."
"Sinclair is dangerous," the executive replied, "he must be defeated. The Communists want to take over."
"Shouldn't I have the privilege of making the donation myself?" Billy asked innocently.
"No, the house is burning down," the exec said, "and we need as much water as possible to put it out. That son of a bitch Bolshevik Sinclair must be stopped."
"And my $50 is going to stop him?" Wilder responded.
Wilder later told a colleague that Sinclair was no Communist. "Oh, you're a Communist, too?" the writer replied. Billy thought to himself: I fled fascism for this?
LOOK for tomorrow's coverage of October 20, 1934: The first Thalberg "attack ad" arrives.
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: email@example.com.
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