Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: 'The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics' by Greg Mitchell

Review by Susan Gardner
The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics 
By Greg Mitchell 
Second Edition 
Polipoint: October 2010 
Softcover, 686 pages, $24.95
The 1934 governor's race in California showed candidates the way from the smoke-filled room to Madison Avenue. Media experts, making unprecedented use of film, radio, direct mail, opinion polls, and national fund-raising, devised the most astonishing (and visually clever) smear campaign ever directed against a major candidate. "Many American campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics," Heywood Broun commented in October 1934, "but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced."
Voter suppression. Voter caging. Secret corporate money. Coordinated smear campaigns. Staged video shorts of "real voters" played by actors. Madison Avenue-created attack ads and astroturf "grassroots" organizations. Shady political consultants. Cries of "socialism" and "un-American" candidates. High unemployment, unrest in the populace.


Sound like something we all just lived through? Think again. It's 1934, it's the gubernatorial race for California pitting famed left-wing author Upton Sinclair against Republican incumbent Frank Merriam. It is, in the words of author Greg Mitchell, "The campaign of the century."
Sinclair, an avowed socialist who first shook the establishment world with his muckraking exposure of the meat packing industry in The Jungle, set his sights on storming the political establishment during FDR's first midterms and scored an unexpected upset in winning the Democratic Party's nomination for governor in 1934. Basing his campaign on his End Poverty in California (EPIC) plan, which proposed putting the unemployed to work on idle farms and in factories forming cooperatives and trading goods, his now-legitimate run to head up the dynamic Golden State put the fear of God--or love of Mammon--into a somewhat sleepy, complacent state Republican Party. The resulting smear campaign was not only breath-taking in scope, but historic in its unprecedented use of what was then "new media"--direct mail, motion picture propaganda, billboards, pamphlets and coordination between every major newspaper in the state as well as the entire Hollywood mogul establishment.
This marriage of propaganda, consultants, advertising and corporate money produced an awesome, scorched-earth effort that has become a prototype for campaigns today. As Mitchell writes:
…the 1934 anti-Sinclair crusade in California was perhaps the first election drive that intended to deliver its knockout punch with pictures rather than words. Editorial attacks, circulars, and radio shows all did their part, but when Californians talked about the campaign, they were more likely to mention a billboard, a cartoon, or a movie short they had seen.
Against this visual backdrop, California newspapers devised a scathing coordination that consisted partly of quoting (sometimes fairly, sometimes out of context) from Sinclair's formidable body of written work. Imagine being your usual not completely informed voter, subject to the visual efforts outlined above, and then assaulted with the words resulting from the coordination below:
First, the newspapers were to institute a blackout on all EPIC activities. The following week would be Ridicule Sinclair Week. After that, Distort EPIC Week. Then, Sidetrack Sinclair Week, during which voters were to be fed irrelevant and false issues, such as communism and religion. As part of Minimize Sinclair Week, he was to be merely laughed at, but in mid-October, Discredit Sinclair Week would lay down the heaviest barrage of the campaign. Finally, the battle won, Merriam Week would arrive at last. The incumbent governor, no more than an apparition until then, would suddenly materialize as the sane, steady pilot of California's ship of state.
One of the many delights of this book is Mitchell's portrayal of the sad sack Republican incumbent, who can't quite grasp the power of the negative political assault against his opponent and whines to all his backers--the bankers, the studio heads, the newspaper titans--that he just doesn't understand why he can't get out and meet people and create a positive image with his rather lackluster presence.
Sinclair himself emerges in these pages as a spritely, naive, idealistic and painfully optimistic candidate, unprepared for the double-dealing of the much more sophisticated national Democrats in the White House. Despite Sinclair's much publicized meeting with FDR immediately after winning the nomination in which he appeared to get the president's full backing in private, Roosevelt's advisers urged hanging back in active and public support, not entirely trusting the socialist candidate's avowal of allegiance to Democratic Party policies and the New Deal.
By the end of the campaign, Sinclair was abandoned by the national party; FDR advisers went so far as to fly out to California to try to broker a drop-out by Sinclair and a backing of third-party Republican progressive Raymond Haight. Sinclair was rightly stung, continuing throughout his campaign to implore FDR to live up to his promise to endorse Sinclair and his land use platform. The president and his staff denied ever supporting such sweeping changes and left Sinclair to twist in the wind. (History has been kinder to Sinclair than FDR in the rivaling accounts of what was promised at that famous post-nomination meeting at Hyde Park. Mitchell's research of contemporary notes by FDR staff and Sinclair himself, and private communications between the president and Sinclair make a pretty clear case that Roosevelt did, indeed, initially support the muckracker's "production for use" cooperatives and would aid his candidacy.)
The juggernaut, breakneck pace of campaign is captured perfectly by author Mitchell. But more than that, what could have been a fairly dry recounting of political history has been worked into a vibrant, rich tapestry of the times. Current events, movies, music and seemingly apolitical details are woven into the fabric, creating a masterpiece of a backdrop for the unfolding political shenanigans. California quirks and details are sketched in, and lurking in the background is the grim scepter of the Great Depression, with its nomad relocations, influx of hard-hit Dust Bowl refugees into California and the fear of lawlessness and tramps.
Mitchell made a particularly wise choice in telling the tale of the general election campaign in the form of a daily political journal. This allowed him to dip into headlines to enrich the political events with the color of real life in the 1930's. Thus, you get the account of William Randolph Hearst madly trying to arrange a meeting with Adolf Hitler while he's in Germany (and trying to ditch Marion Davies for the confab) while he's also juggling frantic telegrams begging for instruction from his newspaper staffs about what stance to take on Sinclair's candidacy. It's hard to think of another form where this kind of richness of mood, character and event could be achieved so smoothly. All in all, The Campaign of the Century is a great winter read—instructive and entertaining, thorough and hefty for settling in beside the fire with a great real-life tale of political skullduggery running head-first into idealism.


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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