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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."
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This book is a (literally) day by day account of the 1934 campaign for California governor. Amazingly, Mitchell's political oreientation is completely invisible (and I had my radar on)! The result is a wonderfully exciting, novel-like political history (divided into nuggets for those of us with short attention spans). Perhaps Sinclair is presented as too much of an idealist, but the alternative may have made the tone more of a polemic. I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you like politics.
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on May 23, 2016
One of the best historical books written. It is ironic that Mitchell's chronicle of events is criticized as being too pro Sinclair. Sometimes stories that are true evoke emotion because the insight they provide is ugly. Mitchell's historical accounting is great but the subject is sad. It certainly helps explain how the media has made fools of us all. Unfortunately, there is no turning back.
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on January 29, 2014
Fascinating history. We could use an Upton Sinclair and an EPIC campaign today! Greg Mitchell has written an accessible history that resonates today.
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on November 14, 2013
Amazing book. Think what our nation would be like if he'd won. There's more support than ever for the ideas Sinclair pushed. If only...
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on September 7, 2001
In 1934, veteran muckraker and socialist Upton Sinclair managed to win the Democratic nomination to run for Governor of California. Running on a blatantly Marxist platform, Sinclair through a scare into the rich and powerful of America who, in the view of this book's author, united together to unfairly slander Sinclair and rob him of victory. Campaign of the Century provides a heavily detailed, anecdote-filled accounts of the campaign and manages to weave in a fascinating social history featuring the most revered figures of recent American history. Over the course of the campaign we get fascinating portraits of Will Rogers, Aimee Semple MacPhearson, Louis B. Mayer, and Franklin D. Roosevelt amongst others.

The book's main flaw is the idealization of Sinclair. While Marshall is honest enough to admit that the man could be a flake, his platform is never really examined in any great detail. Nor does Marshall give any real evidence as to why Sinclair would have been a better governor than his opponent or even why he seems so convinced Sinclair would have won if not for the convenient boogeyman of Big Business. Instead, Marshall seems to simply assume that all readers will naturally agree that Sinclair was an angel and anyone opposed to him was the devil.

This being said, this is still a wonderful social and political history of the not-so-distant past. It should definitely be read by anyone who considers himself to be a political junkie or is just interested in history. Just remember to keep an open mind and not always automatically believe everything you read.
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on February 16, 2001
The author's obvious sympathy for Sinclair interferes with his telling of the monumental 1934 governor's race in California. Given the depths of the country's turmoil in 1934, it is doubtful is so wacky a candidate (although a brilliant and sincere one) ever was taken so seriously for such a major office.
The book is not so much about the campaign for Governor as it is about the negative campaign run against him -- 90% of the book focuses on people who opposed Sinclair and their tactics. In addition to employers bullying their workers to kick back contributions to the anti-Sinclair effort and scurrilous attempts to intimidate Sinclair supporters from turning out to vote, the author lavishes attention on the fact that mailings were sent out against Sinclair in huge quantities; that newspapers and other foes used his long record of incendiary quotes, outside of the mainstream by virtually any standard, against him. One presumes the author believes we'll be shocked that the Merriam campaign is campaigning.
Sinclair's opponent, the incumbent Governor Merriam, is portrayed as an imbecile, a non-entity who the author labels early on as "reactionary" (and re-labels him with the derogitory term dozens and dozens of times, as though it were informative rather than namecalling.) Merriam's support of the Townsend Plan and other "progressive" measures is dismissed out-of-hand as laughably and obviously insincere -- so insincere the author feels no need to burden himself with supporting his accusations. While it may be news to the author, it's a widely accepted historical fact that after Merriam trounced Sinclair, he endured the scorn of anti-New Dealers for pushing for the progressive policies he campaigned on, a fact which compromised his re-election effort in 1938.
Just as can be expected of a book that focuses so exclusively on the negative side one campaign ran against the other, that campaign comes across as morally flawed while the other is virtuous. The author acknowledges Sinclair's demagogery (he claims "208" New York mobsters have been sent by capitalists to undo his campaign, just as Joe McCarthy said, "I hold in my hand a list of 205 communists...") shameless pandering (claiming belief in God in the closing weeks in the face of decades of loud, principled agnosticism) and smear campaigning of his own (Sinclair's orgainization runs an "expose" on Merriam's KKK background, a complete falsehood) yet these instances cover several sentences while the anti-Sinclair excesses are covered in several hundred pages.
Nonetheless, this was a largely enjoyable read, despite being somewhat tedious in detail at times. The story is riveting, it is eloquently (although not objectively) told, and performs it's greatest service in reminding fat, happy modern day America where prosperity is considered a fact of life that this country was a far different place not so long ago.
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on September 22, 2012
The Campaign of the Century takes a mostly forgotten incident in American history and illuminates it, helping us understand not only what it was but how it shaped America's future.
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