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 31, 2010 12:20 PM

Greg Mitchell recently 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 intro piece here and catch up with previous days here. )

October 31, 1934

Hollywood wouldn't think of shutting down for an entire day, but the studios announced that they would suspend movie production for two hours on Election Day to encourage workers to vote. This suggested that the top brass felt confident that, one way or another, they had secured an overwhelming vote for GOP candidate Frank Merriam.

Just to make sure, an official at one studio posted this sign next to a time clock: IF YOU EXPECT TO PUNCH THIS A WEEK FROM NOW DON'T VOTE FOR SINCLAIR.

The California Supreme Court issued a writ this morning prohibiting the wholesale purging of registered voters in Los Angeles. "It is perfectly clear now that this action is a sham proceeding and a perversion of court process, absolutely void," Justice William Langdon commented, "and it can have no effect other than to intimidate and prevent eligible voters from going to the polls. It outrages every principle of justice and fair play."

The vote-purge plan, endorsed by every prominent local and state Republican official as well as the president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, attempted to "abrogate and cut off" the constitutional rights of twenty-four thousand voters, Justice Langdon observed, without notification of any kind save for "publication of this mass of names without addresses and not even in alphabetical order, on a single occasion, in a newspaper of some fifteen hundred circulation."

Democrats hailed the decision, although one EPIC leader complained that the Merriamites had succeeded in planting the idea that a voter was liable to a penalty of seven years' imprisonment "if by any chance his right to vote is challenged." Actually there was every chance that would happen. Election officials and GOP activists would personally challenge 150,000 voters at the precinct level on November 6, the Merriamites promised, despite today's court ruling. If they did that, the EPICs warned, violence was sure to follow.

Victorious in Sacramento, EPIC attorneys fought back along another front, aiming their fire this time at Hollywood. Already alarmed by reports that Congressman Wright Patman planned to investigate political chicanery in Hollywood, the movie executives learned today that EPIC lawyers had requested a grand jury probe into the intimidation of studio workers.

Even more startling: the district attorney's office agreed to pursue the matter, providing EPIC furnished some leads. David A. Sokol, one of the EPIC attorneys, was only too happy to oblige. He named the actress Katharine Hepburn as "an example of an employee" threatened with dismissal if she voted for Sinclair. Sokol demanded that the D.A. summon eight studio officials before the grand jury, including Winfield R. Sheehan, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Jack L. Warner. Other Hollywood figures who might have a story to tell the grand jury, Sokol suggested, included Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, and Will Rogers.

No subpoenas would be issued at the present time, explained Daniel Beecher, the deputy district attorney, but he announced that he was sending an investigator to question Miss Hepburn as to whether she had been "intimidated."

When Frank Merriam arrived at room 622 of the Ambassador Hotel for his audience with J.F.T. O'Connor, the emissary from the White House, the possibility that President Roosevelt might actually express support for his candidacy, once so farfetched it was laughable, now seemed within reach. From the events of the past week it was clear that FDR had retreated irrevocably from Sinclair. For several days now, Frank Merriam had proclaimed himself a New Dealer, and Earl Warren had devised a nonpartisan closing strategy for the campaign. That set the stage for the White House to signal that California Democrats could vote for Merriam without offending FDR.

Almost immediately upon meeting O'Connor, Frank Merriam expressed his appreciation for Democratic support throughout the state. "In fact, our Republican organization was shot and the Democrats gave us our most effective leaders," he confessed. O'Connor responded by saying that Merriam shouldn't take this as an endorsement of standpatism. State leaders must try new programs
and "stay a step ahead of the crowd." O'Connor was surprised to find Merriam agreeing with him.

"You can assure the President of my cooperation," he said.

The elements of a deal then emerged. "If you are elected," O'Connor said, "will you make a statement to the press of this nation that your election is not a repudiation of the Roosevelt policies, but that your
election was brought about with the assistance of many of the Roosevelt leaders in California?"

"Yes," Merriam answered emphatically. He also promised that "the Democrats will not be forgotten" when it came time to dispense patronage.

The Bridal Call Crusader revealed today that Aimee Semple McPherson would participate in the climactic anti-Sinclair rally Friday night at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. An organization called the Allied Churchmen had put together a program that included nearly all of the top clerics in the city, the first time in anyone's memory that Catholics, Protestants, and Jews would share a political stage.

They even invited Aimee McPherson, whom the staid church leaders of southern California normally treated as a pariah. Not only that, they asked her to stage a full-blown pageant, America! Awake! The Enemy Is at Your Gates! Upton Sinclair had made Sister Aimee respectable again.

Early in the campaign a Sinclair associate apparently had called Sister Aimee and suggested that she and Uppie hold a public debate on the EPIC plan. Surprisingly, Aimee commented that she actually favored EPIC and suggested that they hold the debate at the Angelus Temple. She would pretend to oppose EPIC, then be converted and direct her followers to vote for Sinclair. Everything was an opera to Aimee McPherson. But Aimee never set a date, and Sinclair later heard, through his sources, that "the bankers" supposedly had threatened to foreclose the mortgage on the temple if she endorsed EPIC.

For whatever reason, Aimee was now involved in a big way. This Sunday, two days after the Allied Churchmen meeting, she planned to preach not one but two sermons related to the current campaign, including one entitled, "EPIC: Enemy Power Invading Christianity."


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