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 23, 1934:
William Randolph Hearst was back at San Simeon after an absence of five months and ready at last to select a candidate in the governor's race. His papers in California had been crucifying Upton Sinclair for the past month but Hearst, just back from hobnobbing with Nazis in Germany, had another option. Raymond Haight, the third-arty candidate, perceiving Hearst as a fellow maverick, had lobbied long and hard for the publisher's support. Today, in a personal letter to Haight, the Chief put an end to that nonsense. "What I conceive to be the best interests of the people of California," Hearst explained, "impel me to support Mr. Merriam for Governor."
With all respect to you, sir, the choice for Governor in this instance seems clearly to lie between Mr. Sinclair on the one hand--a man who is shockingly unstable in his opinions, and obviously unreliable in his ever-varying and conflicting advocacies--and Mr. Merriam on the other hand--a capable and conscientious American, wholly dependable in his proven devotion to the public welfare. ... It would be unthinkable to have this great state, and the interests of its millions of worthy citizens, come under the control of an unbalanced and unscrupulous political speculator who would, in the performance of his unsound and sinister program, wreck the very foundations of all prosperity for years to come.
Meanwhile, in Washington, George Creel, the famous World War I government propagandist--who had lost to Upton Sinclair in the Democratic primary for governor--paid a visit on President Roosevelt in the White House. Creel informed him that he had just written a six-page letter to Upton Sinclair renouncing his recent endorsement for the candidate on grounds that he had strayed from the Democratic platform. Sinclair had rejected this notion but that didn't seem to matter.
After the cordial meeting, the president aide, Steve Early, penned a note to Eleanor Roosevelt, who viewed Sinclair favorably. The note: "The President's instruction on Sinclair's candidacy in California are: (1) Say nothing and (2) Do nothing."
Sinclair had just written a desperate telegram to his friend Heywood Broun, the famous columnist:
"Wall Street cohorts flocking here. We await you anxiously." But Broun, contrary to his promise, had not budged from New York. Yet Broun was standing by Sinclair, albeit at some distance.
In his column today Broun wrote:
No wonder lonely women shiver at night even in the mild Los Angeles climate. Nothing stands between them and dishonor save the stalwart figure of Frank Merriam.
However, at the eleventh hour Hollywood rides to the rescue. The motion picture magnates are ready to march shoulder to shoulder with the statesman who contends that it is Upton's intention to end purity in California. The hearth, the home and Hollywood have joined hands to repel the invader. It would be very funny but for the fact that democratic government is under fire and cannot stand many more Merriams.
Reports of coerced contributions at movie studios revealed which candidate in California really believed in democracy. "No such flagrant forced levy has been known in this country," Broun wrote, "since the days when Mark Hanna bought the presidency of the United States for William McKinley." It was Merriam's candidacy, and not Sinclair's, "which endangers American tradition. If it is possible for a minority of rich men to thwart the will of the commonwealth by corruption and misrepresentation, then it will be very difficult to answer adequately the radical who says that he believes in revolution and direct action since the masses can never get a fair deal at the polls."
"Many American campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics," Broun acknowledged, "but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced." He dissected some of the outrageous anti-Sinclair leaflets and then observed: "It seems to me that it is not fantastic to say that Frank F. Merriam, if elected, will be the first out-and-out fascist Governor the United States has known. The tactics which he is pursuing in his campaign follow very closely the formulae used by Hitler in smashing the German republic."
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.