Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Lie Factory

 “Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter later said. “But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.” --the crux of political smear campaigns

To get things started, we delve into an insightful piece on the beginning of modern campaign firms.  For all of you who remember US History, the victim is Upton Sinclair, famous author of The Jungle, that book about working conditions in factories that you always heard about but never read.  Apparently he also wrote a fictional account called "I, Governor of California", which became the basis for his actual campaign for governor.  He successfully garnered the nomination for the Democratic Party.  It was an interesting time in 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression-there was not a single Democrat in statewide office.

Anyway, Sinclair, a socialist ran an anti-poverty campaign (End Poverty in California).  He easily got the nomination, but got walloped in the general election, spawning a truthful essay, "“I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked.”  The brunt of the blame is tied to the ominous-sounding Campaign Inc led by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter.  Now, Sinclair had had his clashes with the big corporations of the day (eg Standard Oil).  Naturally, Baxter and Whitaker happened to be publishers for the California League Against Sinclairism. The Democratic Party did however begin its ascendance in California politics in winning seats in the state legislature, so maybe two people weren't enough to buy every election.

Of course, the drama in California didn't end there.  Campaign Inc was later hired to fight an early start at social security ($30 a week to people over 50 AKA Ham and Eggs Referendum).  “In a typical campaign they employed ten million pamphlets and leaf-lets; 50,000 letters to ‘key individuals and officers of organizations’; 70,000 inches of advertising in 700 newspapers; 3,000 spot announcements on 109 radio stations; theater slides and trailers in 160 theaters; 1,000 large billboards and 18,000 or 20,000 smaller posters.”  Ouch.  They also ran an advertising firm and printed editorials that could be mistaken for news columns in some papers.  They made hundreds of thousands of dollars way before that was cool for anyone other than the best baseball players, if them.  I'll let them speak for themselves and you can see if you like this:

“We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,” Whitaker said. Subtlety is your enemy. “Words that lean on the mind are no good,” according to Baxter. “They must dent it.” Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”
“We need more partisanship in this country,” Whitaker said. Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,”
Whitaker and Baxter were not always popular, even among their clients.  Earl Warren, famed liberal Supreme Court head, was once a Republican.  He wanted universal health care for California, and of course this was unacceptable then just as it is now.  They ran a blitzkrieg campaign against it, including a postcard saying "That system was born in Germany—and is part and parcel of what our boys are fighting overseas. Let’s not adopt it here."  Later, they tried to impeach him from the Supreme Court.

Then there was this gem opposing Medicare: "Hitler and Stalin and the socialist government of Great Britain all have used the opiate of socialized medicine to deaden the pain of lost liberty and lull the people into non-resistance."  Sound familiar?  Baxter and Whitaker were pioneers in political consulting, and by Nixon's time, everyone was in the game.  The duo dismissed their campaigns as "grassroots organizing", perhaps foreboding the "grassroots" Tea Party movement of today.

I personally would like public campaign financing, which does a lot to even out the playing field.  Unfortunately, SuperPACs have taken hold and unless Citizen's United can be reversed multimillion dollar campaigns will remain the norm.  Lest you think though that during the 1950s, everyone cooperated and politicians didn't lie so much to get elected, that was not true at all.  Mudslinging has been happening ever since the first democracy and extremist rhetoric has always been commonplace.  Anyway, this is certainly an interesting read and my summary/assortment of quotes is not comprehensive.  Plus, it's The New Yorker.  Great Stuff.

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