The 2010 campaign started 76 years ago


Now that the Phillies have left the building, one tiny consolation is that I'll have some extra time for the outstanding book I've been reading: The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, by my friend Greg Mitchell, now at The Nation after an epic stint as editor of Editor and Publisher during the tumultuous George W. Bush years. The book was first published in 1992 -- it won the prestigious Goldsmith Book Prize -- but it's just been re-issued in paperback and is a must read in 2010 to understand the deep roots of cash-and-carry politics in America.

Consider a nation frustrated by years of seemingly intractable unemployment, made worse by a financial crisis that had been triggered by an era of runaway greed and lack of regulation on Wall Street. A new Democratc president who promised a transformative government, and an electorate that was frustrated that change was not happening quickly enough. Business leaders looking admiringly toward right-wing movements that bordered on fascism and funding opposition to the White House agenda.

That was America in 1934 -- the year that the well-known author of The Jungle and political socialist Upton Sinclair stunned the nation by running for governor of California as a Democrat, winning the primary and now on the brink of arriving in Sacramento to carry out a radical program called EPIC, for End Poverty in California. Mitchell's vivid and throroughly reported tome begins with Sinclair's primary win and brings in an epic (no pun intended...OK, maybe a little) cast that runs from Charlie Chaplain and other Hollywood liberals -- and rival conservatives -- (you thought there were none before George Clooney and Chuck Norris?) to the Hitler-admiring, iconic Golden State-based newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, all the way to the White House and FDR himself, who grappled whether to disown Sinclair or embrace him.

Despite the depths of the Great Depression, it was also a time of great technological change. Because Sinclair's EPIC program would have had a huge impact on the film business, the Hollywood studio bosses rallied behind his GOP opponent, Frank Merriam. In doing so, the studio chiefs and a new breed of political adviser, steeped not in traditional ward politics of the early 20th Century but in the use of modern advertising techniques, hit on the newfangled concept of attack ads, delivered in theatres through the popular newsreels. During a golden era for motion pictures, California moviegoers were bombarded with these staged newsreels, tarring Sinclair and his ideas. They were created by film legend Irving Thalberg, namesake of the Academy Award for producers:

Then a young, shifty-eyed Chicano man standing on a busy street corner endorsed "Uptown Saint-Clair." But a sweet little old lady picked Merriam because he would keep her family safer.

Again, the next subject provided a vivid contrast. A Mr. Duncan, also elderly, wore a beat-up hat and was absent his front teeth. One might call him a bum. "I'm going to vote for Upton Saint-Clair," he said.

Voter number nine, a well-dressed young chap in a dark suit, stood on a tennis court, though not dressed for the sport, looking for all the world like an. . . aspiring actor? Maybe even an accomplished one. Merriam, he said, was "for democracy rather than socialism, and he won't involve us in any dangerous experiments."

A gentleman in a gray suit and hat standing next to him put in his two cents: "I'd like to stay in the real estate business, and if Mr. Sinclair gets in I believe there will be no real estate business."

I don't think I need to offer a "spoiler alert" in telling you that Sinclair lost the election, although the longer-term outcome was arguably more mixed -- since the aftermath of the ugly contest also gave new life to a liberal movement both in Hollywood and in Sacramento, and on the national level President Roosevelt moved to implement a host of successful progressive national policies like Social Security that, frankly, were not as risky or extreme as the socialist EPIC program would have been. Mitchell's account is comprehensive but often reads like a movie itself, thanks to its larger-than-life cast of characters.

It's also worth noting that the latter 20th Century brought a host of campaign finance reforms that aimed -- with mixed results, to be sure -- to prevent scenarios in which the wealthiest backers of one candidate could spend unlimited dollars on a mass media campaign like the one that overwhelmed the helpless Sinclair. But that was before the arrival of John Roberts and friends, and their warped Citizens United decision, and an election where Karl Rove and his American Crossroads pals are looking to party with their $250 million like it's 1934, with anonymous attack ads worthy of the Irving G. Thalberg Award for Mudslinging.

The sad fact that we've learned so little over about 76 years about preserving democracy for regular citizens in the face of powerful corporations now defined as "persons" by a rogue Supreme Court threatens to make 2010 not so much The Campaign of the (21st) Century -- as the Crime of the Century.