When 'Mad Men' in Media Took Control of Political Campaigns

Article excerpt

It's good to see Upton Sinclair back in the news again amid the raves (which I don't quite share) for the new film "There Will Be Blood," very loosely based on his 1927 novel "Oil!" Even though Sinclair earned a nod in many of the articles and reviews of the film, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis, few have commented on the original source material.

So here's one tidbit: The novel, one of Sinclair's finest, was "banned in Boston," as Catholics there objected to sexual passages, references to abortion, and other heresies. Truth be told, this did not displease the famous author, as it provided a nice boost for sales. After he journeyed to Boston from California, photographs of him hawking the book on the streets, wearing a signboard that promoted what he called the "Fig Leaf Edition," appeared in newspapers around the country. Talk about manipulating the press!

But Sinclair's most lasting contribution to modern media follies came seven years later when the former socialist ran for governor of California as a Democrat (a tale I told in my 1992 book "The Campaign of the Century"). As another election year begins this month, it is worth looking back at how the modern "media" campaign began.

On Aug. 28, 1934, Sinclair swept the Democratic primary for governor and all hell broke loose across the state, then across the continent. On the day after, the Los Angeles Times, under Harry Chandler, denounced Sinclair's "maggot-like horde" of supporters, and the Hearst press was no kinder. The movie studios threatened to move back east if Sinclair took office.

Sinclair, author of "The Jungle" and dozens of other muckraking books, led a grassroots movement called EPIC (End Poverty in California). His friend H.L. Mencken explained in a column, "Upton Sinclair has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century, is at it again in California, and on such a scale that the whole country is attracted by the spectacle." Will Rogers wrote much the same thing.

The prospect of a socialist governing the nation's most volatile state sparked nothing less than a revolution in American politics. With an assist from Hollywood -- and leading newspapers -- Sinclair's opponents virtually invented the modern media campaign. It marked a stunning advance in the art of public relations, "in which advertising men now believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor," Arthur M. …