Saturday, December 1, 2012

Campaign of the Century (Review)

In the final days of California’s 2012 election, attention began to focus on the machinations and spending of an Arizona-based group which was campaigning vigorously around two ballot initiatives: against Prop 30, which raised marginal rates on the wealthy and sales taxes by a quarter cent on the dollar; and for Prop 32, an anti-union measure aimed at leaving corporations in sole possession of the spending field.


The Arizona organisation drew a great deal of attention to itself through its secrecy.  The refusal to reveal the origins of the funds or the names behind the group suggested that its backers had something to hide.  Americans for Responsible Leadership (the name under which this money-laundering organisation hid even as it billed itself as dedicated to “educating the public about concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics”) went so far as to defy the request of the California Fair Political Practises Commission to disclose its funding sources, and only released the information after an eleventh-hour ruling by the state Supreme Court. 

Some of the money spent was traced indirectly to sordid characters like the Koch Brothers, but by and large it led to a shady web of similar front organisations.  Investigations into the shady ARL continue.  Neither the amount of spending nor the influx of outside dollars into California was a novelty of 2012.  In 2010, Texas oil companies lobbied against clean energy measures in the state.  In the same year, billionaire Meg Whitman broke records for the most personal spending on a campaign.  But some noticed that the general suggestion by commentators was that the amount of spending in California’s 2012 election was outrageous and unprecedented.

Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for the Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics (New York: Random House, 1992) provides a corrective to this ahistorical viewpoint.  Mitchell tells the story of Sinclair’s campaign on the End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform on a day-by-day, blow-by-blow basis, situating the muckraker-turned-politician amidst the politics and popular culture of his day. 

As the title suggests, Mitchell is arguing (loosely) that this race was a watershed moment in the history of campaigning.  He describes how the good, the great, and the downright ugly of California’s Democratic and Republican Parties, the movie industry, and the banking worlds, amongst others, banded together in an extraordinary alliance of convenience to halt what they feared would be a threatening juggernaut.  Their fear allowed a now-familiar creature—the political consultant—to crawl out of the sewers to take a hand in engineering both Sinclair’s defeat and the subsequent centrality of political consultants to campaigning.

Clem Whitaker (who hailed from Willits) and Leone Baxter (who lived for some time in Redding) pioneered the art of crafting a smear campaign when they took up the task of representing Frank Merriam, Sinclair’s Republican, incumbent opponent.  They based the Merriam campaign on combing through every word uttered by Sinclair (a prolific author), dutifully wresting them out of context, and presenting them to the public as evidence for everything from Sinclair’s commitment to breaking down the family unit to his wild-eyed Stalinism (sound familiar?). 

The role of Merriam in this campaign was entirely subsidiary.  Mitchell recounts how Whitaker “offered a candidate what he called full-service campaign management.  This meant that he would attend to every aspect of the campaign.  The candidate just had to be—neither the candidate nor the party headquarters had to do” (84).  Another manoeuvre was the use of Merriam’s incumbency to generate news (or at least things that looked like news).  The candidate’s appearances were carefully rationed, his utterances calculated, and his every action viewed through the lens of how or whether it would contribute to electoral victory.

While Whitaker would undoubtedly have liked to claim credit for Merriam’s eventual election victory, there was competition.  William Randolph Hearst, here as in other critical moments of the day, envisioned himself as being central to Sinclair’s defeat.  Hollywood film magnates described their own efforts as “epoch-making” (543).  And EPIC supporters would point their fingers, trembling with rage, at Roosevelt, who met Sinclair and reportedly promised him support which in the end was never forthcoming. 

The book reads easily and briskly, and FDR, Charlie Chaplin, Huey Long, Will Rogers, and Pat Brown make guest appearances.  In some respects, the title is a little misleading, and the book is less a systematic argument about the Sinclair race and the birth of media politics than it is an exercise in portraiture.  A sense of the era emerges, but things like the process by which Campaigns, Inc (Whitaker and Baxter’s organisation) was formed or operated receives sparing and slapdash treatment.  EPIC’s platform, which one would have assumed would be centre-stage in any such story, is surprisingly glossed-over in favour of a discussion of how it was portrayed by Sinclair’s opponents.  There is little attention given to accounting for leftist politics of the era.  In general, these themes make momentary appearances and then drift out of sight.  This weakness stems in part from the day-by-day format, meaning that while dramatic tension builds marvellously, readers are hard pressed to keep track of what precisely is behind that tension.

Written 20 years ago, Mitchell’s book remains compelling because it exemplifies the frustration of grassroots, the enduring power of money, and the bizarre alliances that emerge from a sordid political process.  A recent New Yorker article seconded Mitchell’s estimation that Campaigns, Inc. was a first, and goes on to tell the story of how Whitaker and Baxter’s organisation has influenced California politics down the decades...and not for the better.

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