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Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: Kate Hepburn, FDR, Against Upton Sinclair

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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 last Monday's intro piece here and catch up with previous days here. )

October 29, 1934 -- Frank Finley Merriam, a stock character straight out of this movie, visited The County Chairman set at the Fox studio today. Unable to secure Will Rogers's support, Merriam figured the next best thing was to get his picture taken with the star. So there he was, smiling up at Rogers from behind a big desk on one of The County Chairman sets. Merriam looked as though he were auditioning for a part and expected to get it.

So far, Katharine Hepburn had refused to comment on the district attorney's investigation of political intimidation in Hollywood, but across the country in Hartford, Connecticut, her father, Dr. Thomas Hepburn, spoke on her behalf. It was impossible to say whether she had asked him to make an announcement or, indeed, whether he had even talked to her lately. He spoke, however, with all the authority of a father who normally kept in close contact with his children.

Dr. Hepburn called reports that Kate had been "intimidated" to contribute funds to defeat Upton Sinclair "nonsense." Kate, he asserted, "has no intention of voting for Sinclair for governor of California.

"On the contrary," he added, "she will vote exactly the opposite."

In his personal correspondence, which today was voluminous, Herbert Hoover transmitted news of EPICs likely demise across the continent. One comment appeared in nearly every letter: "The people here are realizing that this is only a skin eruption from the poison which has been poured into the national blood stream."

The former president elaborated on this sentiment in a note to Walter B. Mahoney of The North American Review in New York. "For the first time in our national history," Hoover observed, "sane Democrats and sane Republicans of all breeds of thought have openly and avowedly combined in a campaign." But Hoover still harbored some misgivings.

"The campaign of opposition to Sinclair is based upon the New Deal technique of abuse," he noted. "It may be effective, but it saddens one as to the advancement of civilization."

The White House, meanwhile, expected a call from Upton Sinclair at midday. Marvin Mclntyre went upstairs and talked to the President. When Mclntyre came back down, he arranged to have his telephone conversation with the EPIC candidate recorded -- a highly unusual procedure in the Roosevelt White House, reserved for only the most sensitive discussions.

The telephone rang. It was Sinclair, calling from his temporary home in Beverly Hills. For the first time since September 4, the candidate and the White House talked directly. It was high noon for Sinclair. "I don't know how much you know of the situation in California," Sinclair began.

"Nothing except hearsay and newspaper reports," Mclntyre replied. Sinclair told him about the vote-purge scheme and other forms of wholesale intimidation.

"They have started a campaign of lies," Sinclair reported, "and now have centered all their attacks on the proposition that the Administration is against us, and they are going to beat us with that argument unless we can get real action from you folks. Farley wrote us a letter and they now claim that it was a rubber-stamped letter, sent by accident. I don't know whether that's true or not but if Farley doesn't contradict it we are sunk."

"That's a matter you will have to take up directly with Farley," Mclntyre said.

"If something isn't done," Sinclair threatened, "you will find when 1936 comes that you have made a mistake.... What we want is to have Jefty O'Connor step into an airplane and come out here and help us put down these lies."

"Obviously that suggestion is one the Administration couldn't have any part in," Mclntyre interjected. "If you want O'Connor out there the thing to do is to take it up with O'Connor personally, and as an individual."

What Sinclair didn't know was that O'Connor had a hidden agenda: to flatter, cajole, or bully him out of the race.

When Sinclair called and asked him to come to California, Jefty agreed, so long as his boss, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, approved. A few minutes later Morgenthau told Jefty that the President wanted him to go. O'Connor made plane reservations and wired his schedule to Sinclair.

A few hours later, O'Connor had barely left the ground, and already his trip to California was the worst-kept political secret in America. The Sacramento Bee printed a dispatch from Washington quoting a "well-authorized" source who revealed that Jim Farley had drafted J.F.T. O'Connor to fly to California -- and convince Sinclair to withdraw.

In a statewide radio broadcast from Los Angeles tonight, Sinclair declared that the "hour of the great decision draws near for the people of California. They are going to give an answer which the whole world is awaiting: Can Democracy be made to work? Can the people manage their own affairs? Or can they be cheated and made fools of by greedy, lying exploiters and wholesale thieves?"

Sinclair took this opportunity to declare: "I am not an atheist, and never have been one. . . .I am not a Communist, and never have been one. . . .I never trampled on the American flag. I never cursed the constitution -- or anybody or anything else. I never did any of the grotesque and hideous things which the hired liars are now shouting to you over the radio. . . ."

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.