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First Blitz of the Soundbite Era
on January 17, 2002
Greg Mitchell provides an absorbing account of one of America's most fascinating gubernatorial campaigns, the titantic 1934 California struggle between famed novelist and muckraker Upton Sinclair, who exposed the Chicago meatpacking business in his epic work, "The Jungle," and Lieutenant Governor Frank Merriam, hand-picked candidate of the powerful monied interests who kept their candidate carefully under wraps in a manner reminiscent of the later candidaces of Californian Ronald Reagan and Texan George Bush the Younger.
The race is fascinating in a current context for being the first instance where the ferocious impact of corporate public relations spin control dominated. A smear was launched against Sinclair based on his socialist roots. What was termed socialist in those days, as evidenced later by perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, was a strong desire for regulation, better working conditions, and greater security for the citizenry in the retirement and medical care areas. While Sinclair, due to his Socialist background and controversy over his End Poverty in California program, failed to receive the endorsement as Democratic Party nominee from an apprehensive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he obtained financial assistance from wealthy Los Angeles socialist property magnate Gaylord Wilshire and many grassroots volunteers seeking security and justice during the ravages of the Great Depression.
Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst and other powerful monied interests fought hard to prevent Sinclair from winning, or having his platform properly debated. Mayer had MGM make and release so-called documentaries which were shown in his studio's movie houses revealing scores of impoverished people coming to California to get in on Sinclair's largesse and take advantage of his promise to end poverty in the state. One controversial segment showed a man with a thick Russian accent exclaiming soothly, "Well, Sinclair's ideas worked in Russia. I don't see why they won't work here."
These were blatant propaganda films purported to reveal spontaneous behavior which were actually rehearsed efforts with actors performing their intended roles. They worked all the same. The fact that Sinclair's socialism was rooted in humanism and not Marxism was deliberately overlooked as distortion and fearmongering prevailed.
Despite these efforts, and being hopelessly outspent, Sinclair ran a spirited campaign based on ideas and ran a strong if unsuccessful race. After it was all over he took it all philosophically, exclaiming that, "If I'd been elected governor I wouldn't be able to continue sleeping with my bedroom window open."