The new David Fincher film, Mank, now on Netflix, features a surprising plot point: muckraking author and longtime socialist Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934. Sinclair, leading an unprecedented mass movement, won the Democratic primary in a landslide and appeared headed for victory in November. Then, a new alliance of Republicans, conservative Democrats, big business titans and Hollywood moguls rallied to destroy his candidacy.
Mank suggests that Herman J. Mankiewicz was so outraged by MGM producer Irving Thalberg and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst leading the charge against Sinclair that he relished the task of writing Citizen Kane for Orson Welles and then stuck with it despite pressure to walk away when the going got rough. This, of course, is pure fiction. The role of the studios in stopping Sinclair is based on fact, however.
Featured in the Fincher film are the bogus newsreels produced by the revered Thalberg, which did have an enormous impact on the campaign and could be considered the first “attack ads” on a screen, precursors for their dominance in the coming era of television. Missing in Mank, however, are the other innovations surfacing in the anti-Sinclair drive, which together with those MGM movie shorts essentially invented the modern election campaign as we know it.
This included putting “spin doctors,” advertising wizards, campaign managers from outside the party, and national fundraisers in charge of a major campaign for the first time. It's why I called my book about the 1934 race The Campaign of the Century. This showdown, in short, pointed the candidates and their handlers the way from the smoke-filled room to Madison Avenue—from the party boss and ward heeler to the “political consultant” and the “Mad Men.”
Back in the summer of ‘34, this was faintly on a distant horizon. In his weekly column appearing in hundreds of newspapers, Will Rogers, America’s most popular 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, defeating George Creel (Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda chief during World War I), and all hell broke loose, around the state then across the continent. 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 movie moguls threatened to move back East, probably to Florida—hell, there was already a city named Hollywood there—if Sinclair took office.
Sinclair, author of The Jungle and dozens of other books, had created a crisis not just for his state but the entire nation by embracing FDR’s New Deal while also leading a grassroots movement called EPIC (End Poverty in California). “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, long before Ronald Reagan.
Political analysts, financial columnists and White House aides for once agreed: Sinclair’s victory in the primary marked the high tide of electoral radicalism in the United States. Left-wing novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a piece for Esquire declaring EPIC “the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced.” The New York Times called it “the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States.”
The prospect of a socialist governing the nation’s most volatile state sparked nothing less than a revolution in American politics. Media experts, hired by the GOP or newly-formed front groups such as United for California and the California League Against Sinclairism, made unprecedented use of film, radio, direct mail, and opinion polls. National fund-raising reputedly produced a record $10 million, and off the books.
One of the nation's leading advertising firms, Lord & Thomas, created materials. The conservative California duo of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter—later recognized as the nation's first “political consultants”—helped devise the most extensive smear campaign ever directed against a major candidate. It was also astonishingly clever, taking quotes from characters in Sinclair novels and attributing them to the candidate himself, and splashing them across front pages, billboards and millions of leaflets.
It mattered little that Sinclair’s opponent, Republican Governor Frank Merriam, was, in the words of Mencken, “a hack politician of the hollowest sort.” His nickname: “Old Baldy.”
Most of the Hollywood moguls, besides threatening the move to Florida, docked employees, at all levels, a day’s pay, and passed the proceeds directly to Merriam’s coffers. Few stars or writers had the courage to resist. James Cagney did, as he was a big enough star to get away with it. A young writer named Billy Wilder was not—he protested but had to go along. MGM writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, brother of Herman, was enlisted to write anti-Sinclair soap operas for the radio. Taken together this marked Hollywood’s first all-out plunge into politics.
The political innovation that produced the strongest impact was the manipulation of moving pictures. Alarmed by the Sinclair threat, MGM’s Thalberg produced fake newsreels, titled “California Election News,” Two were in the form of Inquiring Reporter shorts, featuring interviews with “just average” folks, many of whom were actually bit actors reciting scripts. A third newsreel revealed an army of hoboes heading to California to take advantage of Sinclair’s promised paradise. Again, scenes were staged and some footage was even taken from obscure MGM films. Hearst helped distribute them and provided stories in the press enhancing them. (Watch the first two of the landmark Thalberg newsreels here.) This proved too much for Sinclair supporters, who staged loud protests in the theaters or at the box office.
Throughout the autumn, this drama (often a circus) played out across California. FDR nearly endorsed Sinclair, then pulled back and cut a deal with Merriam, dooming Sinclair's chances: Roosevelt agreed to remain mum if the governor went along with the president’s upcoming New Deal programs. Sinclair’s huge lead evaporated (especially after those fake newsreels hit the screen), and Governor Merriam won re-election.
What was the legacy of the Sinclair campaign? Several EPIC-backed candidates were elected to the state legislature. Although FDR refused to endorse him, he embraced the general spirit of Sinclair's proposals and mass movement, which bolstered his push for Social Security legislation, the Works Progress Administration, and other vital New Deal domestic programs.
EPIC activists kept their organizing and anger simmering, and four years later they elected the state’s first Democratic governor, Culbert Olson—and the state party has remained on the liberal wing ever since. Outrage over the studios’ actions in 1934 spurred a surge in support for both the fledgling Screen Writers and Screen Actors guilds. From this emerged, slowly but steadily, the "liberal Hollywood" we know today.
As for political campaigning: Led by Whitaker & Baxter directly, or by their example, political consultants began taking over many national and then state campaigns, and increasingly drew on advertising, publicity, direct mail, and fundraising experts. Wide use of television commercials arrived with the Eisenhower versus Stevenson race in 1952.
The anti-Sinclair campaign 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. later observed. In another 20 years, these techniques would spread east, “achieve a new refinement,” Schlesinger added, “and begin to dominate the politics of the nation.”
Greg Mitchell has written a dozen books, including The Campaign of the Century, which won the Goldsmith Book Prize. He recently wrote a series of articles for The Daily Beast related to his most recent book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.