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. )
November 1, 1934 -- As was customary, Will Rogers tapped out tomorrow's column right on the set at the Fox studio during his lunch break. "Just had a long chat with Mr. O'Connor, Comptroller of the Currency, who is a mighty big man in the Roosevelt administration," Rogers wrote. "He is out here to vote? 'Yeah,' and try and do a couple of other little odd chores for the boys back at the big county seat. ..."
In fact, O'Connor had just notified the White House that his trip had been a big success -- securing the election for GOP candidate Frank Merriam and scuttling Upton Sinclair.
The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce today virtually ordered all member businesses to close up shop on Election Day and get out the vote for Merriam. The Chamber had formed a unit called the All-Party Election Day Coordinating Committee, and in a letter today to local committeemen, Arthur G. Arnoll, the general manager, asked for volunteers to report to headquarters on November 6. If em ployers couldn't participate, they should "assign some of your employees to answer the urgent appeal."
The president of the California Real Estate Association, Robert A. Swink, called on realtors to shut their offices on Election Day and asked that "every broker and his entire staff place themselves and their automobiles at the service of Merriam for Governor headquarters." Spurred on by Francis V. Keesling of West Coast Life, insurance agents by the thousands attempted to place anti-Sinclair circulars in the hands of every policy holder in the state.
Despite Merriam's apparent lead, his supporters grew nervous. Attempting to halt an anti-Merriam backlash, Earl Warren and W. R. Hearst pleaded for emotional restraint, but their appeals fell on deaf ears. The GOP had fomented so much frenzy it was impossible to curtail it.
"A reign of unreason bordering on hysteria has this sprawling city in its grip as the nation's ugliest campaign approaches zero hour," Max Stern, star Scripps-Howard correspondent, observed today in Los Angeles. The stop-Sinclair movement, he wrote, "has become a phobia, lacking humor, fairness and even a sense of reality. Here one feels himself dwelling in a beleaguered town with the enemy pounding at the gates." Surely another pioneering anti-Sinclair movie short from Irving Thalberg awaited them.
Earl Warren warned Republicans about a sudden surge for Sinclair. "We appear to be close to the goal line, but there has been many an upset in the last quarter," the GOP chief said today. "We must beware of an opposition that is resourceful and capable in all the political arts. Eleventh-hour stunts are to be expected. Look out for the little poison pamphlet designed to mislead and to appeal to this prejudice and that."
Sinclair insisted that victory was now within reach. Donations from Hollywood stars, protesting studio strong-arm tactics -- really, the birth of liberal Hollywood -- would allow him to quadruple his radio budget in the final days.
The famous novelist John Dos Passos had enjoyed his stay in Havana. His room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos faced Morro Castle and the sea. Ernest Hemingway, who claimed to have discovered thirty-six new varieties offish, kept Dos Passos abreast of his attempts to harpoon a humpback whale. Opponents of the dictator Batista were blowing up department stores, butcher shops, and Chinese laundries, but Dos Passos stayed on. He liked Cuban food and savored sitting in the sun on the roof of the hotel to combat his rheumatism. Soon he would sail for Key West and more of the same.
Today he wrote his friend Edmund Wilson. According to Dos Passos, the world might not hear much more about Upton Sinclair. "Looks like Uppie was slipping in California-- obviously he didn't sell out," he told Wilson. "I guess nobody'll go around anymore saying they are out to abolish poverty--it's too patently kicking the props out from under the capitalist system--It makes a pretty bunch of two timing jellyfish out of Farley/Roosevelt/Creel--swine I call 'em. AAA ought to pay mothers not to raise boys like that."
Six thousand Angelenos packed the Shrine Auditorium this evening for the Allied Churchmen rally, perhaps the greatest ecumenical gathering in the city's history. "The church is nonpartisan in politics," Bishop Charles Edward Locke said in opening the program, "but now it is aroused because of the vociferous and blasphemous attacks made upon it by Upton Sinclair." Another speaker stated the theme of the rally in almost biblical terms: "Defeat Upton Sinclair so badly he will leave the state in shame."
It was part church service, part Ziegfeld Follies. The Bilbrew Jubilee Singers parodied a spiritual, reminding the crowd that "All God's Chillun Got Votes." A Presbyterian pastor insisted that there was only one excuse for preachers' taking part in a political election: "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."
Then, as the curtain parted and an orchestra played, it was time for one of Aimee Semple McPherson's illustrious pageants.. It began with Pilgrims in period costume landing at Plymouth to found a nation based on religious freedom. Then a change of scenery, as the Founding Fathers composed the Constitution. When the Civil War came, President Lincoln got down on his knees and prayed to God for guidance. Then the mood onstage turned sinister. Mobs roamed the streets. Aliens excised the words "In God We Trust" from a huge dollar bill and blotted out the words of the national anthem with red paint.
But then, with a piercing cry, an avenging angel, dressed all in white, her golden hair shining -- Sister Aimee, of course -- paraded on stage. "America! Awake!" she shouted in a familiar, musical voice. "The enemy is at your gates! They have penetrated your walls! America! You are in danger! An enemy power is penetrating your strongholds! There is death in their hands. Defend your own!" Awakening, Miss Liberty rubbed her eyes, recognized the danger, and unsheathed the sword of Faith. She drove Satan from the Capitol as Uncle Sam shackled the Bolshevik and handed him a ticket back to Russia. . . .
At the conclusion, the Shrine Auditorium audience roared their approval. Outside the Shrine Auditorium, a small prayer group carrying signs protesting preachers' taking part in politics watched silently as Uncle Sam, still in costume, emerged from the auditorium to purchase popcorn from a vendor.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.