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When 'Mad Men' Types -- and Hollywood-- First Played a Key Role in Politics

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last night, I was pleased to see that the widely-hailed documentary on the Chandler family and the Los Angeles Times airing on PBS stations spent about five minutes on the American political campaign closest to my heart (and expertise). "Inventing L.A." even showed snippets of historic newsreels--the first use of the screen to scuttle a candidate, and created by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg--that I uncovered in researching my book on that race, published in 1993, "The Campaign of the Century." But, of course, there was much, much more to the story than that.

Forgive me, but when pundits labeled last year's presidential campaign "divisive" and "dirty," I had to laugh. The champion of all dirty races in this century, in fact, was that 1934 contest. Like Barack Obama, Sinclair led a "change" campaign with masses of new or re-energized voters leading him to an upset victory for the nomination from the Democrats in dire economic times. Like Obama, he was pictured as mysterious interloper. And like Obama, he was labeled a "Socialist."

Well, actually, that was mostly true in his case.

When it was all over, the modern political campaign was born, dominated by spin doctors, Madison Avenue -- the original "Mad Men"-- attack ads on the screen, Hollywood antics, and all the rest. Harry Chandler and the Times played a central role, and it also marked the movie industry's first decisive plunge into politics (inspiring the liberal bent it has displayed ever since). But the campaign also helped move the Democratic party to the left and inspired some of FDR's most important New Deal programs.

Back in the summer of '34, in his weekly column appearing in hundreds of newspapers, Will Rogers, America's most popular (and greatest) political commentator, revealed that a famous author, a socialist no less, was running for governor of California, "a darn nice fellow, and just plum smart, and if he could deliver even some of the things he promises, should not only be governor of one state, but president of all of 'em."

Six weeks later, on August 28, 1934, Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary for governor of California, and all hell broke loose, across the state, then across the continent. On the day after, the Los Angeles Times denounced Sinclair's "maggot-like horde" of supporters, and the Hearst press was no kinder. Earl Warren, the Alameda County district attorney, warned that the state was about to be overcome by communism, and the movie studios threatened to move back east if Sinclair took office.

But Sinclair, author of "The Jungle" and dozens of other muckraking books, had created a crisis not just for his home state but the entire nation, by embracing FDR's New Deal, while also leading a grassroots movement called EPIC (End Poverty in California), perhaps the greatest such organization of the century. "Upton Sinclair has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century," his friend H.L. Mencken explained, "is at it again in California, and on such a scale that the whole country is attracted by the spectacle." Sinclair was also California's first celebrity politician: before Arnold, before Ronnie.

The prospect of a socialist governing the nation's most volatile state sparked nothing less than a revolution in American politics. With an assist from Hollywood, Sinclair's opponents virtually invented the modern media campaign.

It marked a stunning advance in the art of public relations, "in which advertising men now believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has observed. In another twenty years, these techniques would spread east, "achieve a new refinement," Schlesinger added, "and begin to dominate the politics of the nation."

The 1934 governor's race, in short, showed the candidates the way from the smoke-filled room to Madison Avenue, from the party boss to the "spin doctor." Soon the "Mad Men" would take over.

Media experts, making unprecedented use of film, radio, direct mail, opinion polls, and national fund-raising, devised the most astonishing (and astonishingly clever) smear campaign ever directed against a major candidate. "Many American campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics," columnist Heywood Broun commented, "but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced."

It mattered little that Sinclair's opponent, Governor Frank Merriam, was an "ox," as Westbrook Pegler put it or, in the words of Mencken, "a hack politician of the hollowest sort."

The political innovation that produced the strongest impact was the manipulation of moving pictures. Alarmed by the Sinclair threat, MGM's Mayer and Thalberg produced fake newsreels, using Hollywood actors. W.R. Hearst helped distribute them. For the first time, the screen was used to demolish a candidate, a precursor of political attack ads on television. Most of the studio heads also docked all of their workers and stars one day's pay to go into the GOP coffers. A rebellion against that directly led to generations of liberal activism in Hollywood.

At the same time, Sinclair's candidacy bewitched and bewildered President Roosevelt, less than two years into his New Deal and still struggling to achieve his aims. If he endorsed Sinclair, FDR's critics would accuse him of supporting socialism; if he didn't endorse his party's candidate, some of his friends might call him a coward. Mencken said he preferred Sinclair to Roosevelt and hoped Upton would win, for "it is always amusing to see a utopian in office."

Throughout the autumn this drama (often a circus) played out across California, with everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Katharine Hepburn taking part. FDR nearly endorsed Sinclair, pulled back and doomed his chances. No institution dishonored itself quite like the California press, dominated by the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Hearst papers, north and south. One anecdote that illustrates this:

In October that year, The New York Times' star reporter Turner Catledge (later top editor of the paper) came to California to cover the campaign. Naturally, he hooked up with the Los Angeles Times' bad-boy political editor Kyle Palmer, who pretty much ran the state and every four years selected its chief executive: hence his nickname, "The Little Governor."

The L.A. Times
had been lampooning Sinclair in word, deed, and political cartoon for weeks on an unprecedented scale. To add insult to injury, Palmer was advising, even writing speeches for, Sinclair's opponent. Over dinner, Catledge asked Palmer why the paper refused to be fair and balanced in covering the campaign.

"Turner, forget it," Palmer replied. "We don't go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York-of being obliged to print both sides. We're going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We're going to kill him."

And so they did. Sinclair's huge lead evaporated (especially after those fake newsreels hit the screen), FDR refused to save him, and Governor Merriam won re-election. Kyle Palmer continued to rule California politics for decades.

Some 74 years later, the L.A. Times endorsed a Democrat for president for the first time in memory. And Obama's fate on election day did outshine Sinclair's. But Sinclair did enough, as his campaign is credited with helping to inspire many of FDR's second-stage New Deal programs, including Social Security, as well as firmly establish a liberal Democratic party in California.

Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of Editor & Publisher. His "The Campaign of the Century" won the Goldsmith Book Prize in 1993. His other books include "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady" and "Why Obama Won."