Here we go again. Another political cycle of electile dysfunction; another claimant to the title of dirtiest campaign in history. Each presidential campaign, it seems, is shoddier than the one that came before it – thanks, in large part, to pervasive around-the-clock cable TV coverage and ever-expanding social media.
Presidential campaigns, however, have been R-rated affairs since 1800, when the president of Yale University, who supported John Adams, suggested that a victorious Thomas Jefferson would burn all bibles and make “our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” Jefferson won; wives, daughters and bibles remained safe.
But California has held its own when it comes to coarse political language and dirty tricks.
In 1910, Hiram Johnson, the stout and bespectacled progressive Republican gubernatorial candidate, had a running feud with the crusty, zealously anti-union Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis. Johnson was a “born again mob leader – a whooper – a howler – a roarer,” the 73-year-old publisher wrote.
Mild stuff, compared to Johnson’s vivid response. “He sits there in senile dementia, with rotting heart and gangrene brain ... going down to his grave in snarling infamy ... disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked, putrescent – that is Harrison Gray Otis.”
Cable TV would have been on fire. Johnson won and became one of California’s greatest governors.
Fast-forward to 1934 and what many historians consider the dirtiest campaign in California history. The pervasive media of the day were newspapers, radio and movie newsreels – short news documentaries that ran in movie theaters prior to feature-length films.
When socialist Upton Sinclair defeated eight challengers to capture the Democratic nomination for governor, the state’s business community was apoplectic. Sinclair blamed the profit system and the concentration of wealth in a few hands for so much Depression-era misery. He wanted the state to take over foreclosed farms and idle factories and drive private industries out of business.
Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer of MGM, chair of the Republican State Central Committee, understood that motion pictures had the power to transmit realistic and believable messages, whether they were true or not. Pushing the envelope, his MGM partner, Irving Thalberg, produced a series of devastating fake newsreels for release shortly before the election.
Movie patrons watched as actors supporting incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Merriam praised God and country. But actors who were scripted to support Sinclair looked menacing and praised Russia in thick Eastern European accents. In one newsreel, an elderly woman said she was voting for Merriam “because I want to save my little home. It’s all I have left in this world.” In another, actors played vagrants who hopped freight trains to get to California, eager to put their hands on taxpayer-funded handouts if Sinclair won the election. “They were repulsive looking bums,” noted Harper’s Magazine after the election, although “those with critical eyes wondered why the vagrants were wearing make-up.”
Opponents also employed – for the first time in U.S. history – professional political consultants who distributed an avalanche of campaign pieces that linked Sinclair with Russia. They sent fabricated quotes, attributed to Sinclair, to the state’s newspapers. Voters also received pamphlets from nonexistent communist groups endorsing Sinclair, who ultimately was defeated under the multimedia onslaught.
Those visual images, of course, were the forerunners of today’s omnipresent television attack ads. Two days before Election Day, in a front-page editorial, the Los Angeles Times asserted that the 1934 governor’s election was “the most momentous decision” in the state’s history. It would determine if Sinclair, the “apostle of hatred,” would lead the state down the road to communism. Sound familiar? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Steve Swatt is a former journalist and co-author of “Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.