The Lie Factory
How politics became a business.
by Jill Lepore September 24, 2012
“I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty,” by Upton Sinclair, is probably the most thrilling piece of campaign literature ever written. Instead of the usual flummery, Sinclair, the author of forty-seven books, including, most famously, “The Jungle,” wrote a work of fiction. “I, Governor of California,” published in 1933, announced Sinclair’s gubernatorial bid in the form of a history of the future, in which Sinclair is elected governor in 1934, and by 1938 has eradicated poverty. “So far as I know,” the author remarked, “this is the first time an historian has set out to make his history true.”
It was only sixty-four pages, but it sold a hundred and fifty thousand copies in four months. Chapter 1: “On an evening in August, 1933, there took place a conference attended by five members of the County Central Committee of the Democratic party, Sixtieth Assembly District of the State of California.” That might not sound like a page-turner, unless you remember that at the time California was a one-party state: in 1931, almost all of the hundred and twenty seats in the state legislature were held by Republicans; not a single Democrat held a statewide office. Also useful to recall: the unemployment rate in the state was twenty-nine per cent. Back to that meeting in August, 1933: “The purpose was to consider with Upton Sinclair the possibility of his registering as a Democrat and becoming the candidate of the party for Governor of California.” What if Sinclair, a lifelong socialist, ran as a Democrat? That’s one nifty plot twist.
The pace really picks up after Sinclair adopts an acronymic campaign slogan, “END POVERTY IN CALIFORNIA” (“It was pointed out that the initials of these words spell ‘EPIC’ ”); picks a campaign emblem, passing over the eagle and the hawk (“I personally can get up no enthusiasm for any kind of bird of prey,” the candidate says) in favor of the busy bee (“she not only works hard but has means to defend herself”); explains a program of coöperative factories and farms that would implement his philosophy of “production for use” rather than for profit; proposes killing the sales tax while levying something like a thirty-per-cent income tax on anyone earning more than fifty thousand dollars a year; and promises not only to raise hell but also, preposterously, to win.
All the same, it was a shock to pretty much everyone that, in August of 1934, Sinclair won the Democratic nomination, with more votes than any primary candidate in California had ever won before. That happens in the novel, too, which is what made reading it so thrilling (or, for many people, so terrifying): watching what Sinclair imagined coming to pass. Chapter 4: “The news that the Democratic voters of California had committed their party to the EPIC plan caused a sensation throughout the country.” True! “It resulted in wide discussion of the plan in the magazines, and the formation of an EPIC Committee for the Nation.” Sort of! “A statement endorsing Sinclair for Governor was signed by a hundred leading writers, and college groups were formed everywhere throughout the country to recommend the plan for their cities and states. A group of forward-looking economists endorsed the plan, and letters of support were received from a score of United States senators and some fifty congressmen.” O.K., that part never happened.
In 1934, Sinclair explained what did happen that election year, in a nonfiction sequel called “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked.” “When I was a boy, the President of Harvard University wrote about ‘the scholar in politics,’ ” Sinclair began. “Here is set forth how a scholar went into politics, and what happened to him.” “How I Got Licked” was published in daily installments in fifty newspapers. In it, Sinclair described how, immediately after the Democratic Convention, the Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it, a practice that the paper continued, every day, for six weeks, until the opening of the polls. “Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.”
Sinclair got licked, he said, because the opposition ran what he called a Lie Factory. “I was told they had a dozen men searching the libraries and reading every word I had ever published.” They’d find lines he’d written, speeches of fictional characters in novels, and stick them in the paper, as if Sinclair had said them. “They had a staff of political chemists at work, preparing poisons to be let loose in the California atmosphere on every one of a hundred mornings.” Actually, they had, at the time, a staff of only two, and the company wasn’t called the Lie Factory. It was called Campaigns, Inc.
Campaigns, Inc., the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world, was founded, in 1933, by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. Whitaker, thirty-four, had started out as a newspaperman, or, really, a newspaper boy; he was working as a reporter at the age of thirteen. By nineteen, he was city editor for the Sacramento Union and, a couple of years later, a political writer for the San Francisco Examiner. He was friendly and gangly, and had big ears, and smoked, and never stopped talking, and typed with two fingers. He started a newspaper wire service, the Capitol News Bureau, distributing stories to eighty papers. In 1930, he sold that business to the United Press. Three years later, he was, for his political ingenuity, hired by, among others, Sheridan Downey, a prominent Democrat, to help defeat a referendum sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric. Downey also hired Baxter, a twenty-six-year-old widow who had been a writer for the Portland Oregonian, and suggested that she and Whitaker join forces.
Baxter was small, fine-featured, red-headed, and elegant. “Oh, he was such a dear,” she would say, about someone she liked. Whitaker’s suits never looked like they fit him; Baxter’s looked like they’d fit Audrey Hepburn. Whitaker and Baxter started doing business as Campaigns, Inc. The referendum was defeated. Whitaker separated from his wife. In 1938, he and Baxter married. They lived in Marin County, in a house with a heated swimming pool. They began every day with a two-hour breakfast to plan the day. She sometimes called him Clem; he only ever called her Baxter.
In 1934, when Sinclair won the Democratic nomination, he chose Downey as his running mate. (“Uppie and Downey,” the ticket was called.) Working for Downey had been an aberration for Whitaker and Baxter, people who, it was said, “work the Right side of the street.” Campaigns, Inc., specialized in running political campaigns for businesses, especially monopolies like Standard Oil and Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Pacific Gas and Electric was so impressed that it put Campaigns, Inc., on retainer.
Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation. It’s this kind of thing that Sinclair was talking about when he said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, “So far,” he wrote, “Big Business has won every skirmish.”
Like most California Republicans, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, who headed the California League Against Sinclairism, were horrified at the prospect of Sinclair in the governor’s office. They had to work fast. They were hired just two months before the election by George Hatfield, the candidate for lieutenant governor on a Republican ticket headed by the incumbent governor, Frank Merriam, but, mostly, they were hired to destroy Sinclair. They began by locking themselves in a room for three days with everything he had ever written. “Upton was beaten,” Whitaker later said, “because he had written books.” And, so, those boxes in the L.A. Times:
SINCLAIR ON MARRIAGE:
The sanctity of marriage. . . . I have had such a belief . . . I have it no longer.
The excerpt, as Sinclair explained in “How I Got Licked,” was taken from a passage in his 1911 novel, “Love’s Pilgrimage,” in which one character writes a heartbroken letter to a man having an affair with his wife. (The novel, which Sinclair later found greatly embarrassing, is an autobiographical account of his disastrous first marriage, which ended in 1912 when, citing his wife’s adultery, he divorced her; he married his second wife in 1913; their marriage lasted until her death, in 1961.) “Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter later said. “But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.”
Sinclair lost. He probably would have been a terrible governor. That, though, wasn’t really what was at stake.
No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting, an industry unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. “Every voter, a consumer” was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc. Political management is now a diversified, multibillion-dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from this year’s Presidential race to the campaigns of the candidates for your local school committee. (Campaigns, now, never end. And consultants not only run campaigns; they govern. Mitt Romney, asked by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board how he would choose his Cabinet, said that he’d probably bring in McKinsey to sort that out.) But for years Whitaker and Baxter had no competition, which is one reason that, between 1933 and 1955, they won seventy out of seventy-five campaigns. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California, and of the country. Campaigns, Inc., is shaping American politics still.
In 1934, Upton Sinclair got licked, but a great many End Poverty in California candidates got elected, as Democrats. California became a two-party state. Twenty-four EPIC candidates, among them a Los Angeles lawyer named Culbert Olson, took their seats in the state legislature, and, four years later, Olson, the leader of the state’s EPIC caucus, was elected governor. Olson named Carey McWilliams, a Los Angeles attorney, writer, and reporter, as his chief of the California State Division of Immigration and Housing.
In 1938, McWilliams, a friend of Sinclair’s, had campaigned for Olson while writing “Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California.” It reads like a nonfiction version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Both books were published in 1939. Steinbeck’s was banned, and Republicans in the state legislature attempted to abolish the Division of Immigration and Housing, just to get McWilliams fired.
In 1942, Republicans backing the state’s attorney general, Earl Warren, in a bid to replace Olson in the governor’s office urged him to hire Whitaker and Baxter to run his campaign. Warren agreed, somewhat reluctantly. In the years since defeating Sinclairism, Whitaker and Baxter had put a few more items in their campaign tool kit. In 1939, with pamphlets like “Hoaxing the Hungry,” Campaigns, Inc., had led the effort to defeat California’s Proposition 1, the “Ham and Eggs” referendum, which would have instituted a three-per-cent income tax to provide a thirty-dollar-a-week pension to every citizen over fifty: ham and eggs every Thursday. (Harper’s later reported, “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.”) In 1940, they produced materials for the Republican Wendell Willkie’s Presidential campaign, including a speaker’s manual that offered advice about how to handle Democrats in the audience: “rather than refer to the opponent as the ‘Democratic Party’ or ‘New Deal Administration’ refer to the Candidate by name only.”
Whitaker and Baxter worked together flawlessly. They answered the telephone together. They read each other’s mail. They swapped jobs every year: one year, Whitaker was president and Baxter vice-president; the next year, the reverse. They made heaps of money. For, say, a referendum campaign, they charged between twenty-five thousand and seventy-five thousand dollars. They required complete control of the budget for campaign expenses. (One of their rules: save seventy-five per cent of your budget for the month before Election Day.) The firm grossed about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. Campaigns, Inc., was only one part of the empire. Whitaker and Baxter also ran the Clem Whitaker Advertising Agency, which charged a fifteen-per-cent commission from clients for every ad. They ran a newspaper wire service, the California Feature Service, which sent a political clipsheet every week, to fifteen hundred “thought leaders,” and cartoons, editorials, and articles to three hundred newspapers. Rural newspapers were so desperate for copy that many printed whatever the California Feature Service sent them, including documents that were basically press releases disguised as editorials endorsing whatever political position Campaigns, Inc., was being paid to advocate. The trick was to send out clippings so sly that a tired editor might not notice that they were written by an advertising outfit. One California newspaper editor used to play a game with his staff, while reading the stuff. It was called “Where’s the Plug?”
Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead. “Our conception of practical politics is that if you have a sound enough case to convince the folks back home, you don’t have to buttonhole the Senator,” Baxter explained. Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one. Once, when fighting an attempt to recall the mayor of San Francisco, Whitaker and Baxter waged a campaign against the Faceless Man—the idea was Baxter’s—who might end up replacing him. Baxter drew a picture, on a tablecloth, of a fat man with a cigar poking out from beneath a face hidden by a hat, and then had him plastered on billboards all over the city, with the question “Who’s Behind the Recall?” Pretend that you are the Voice of the People. Whitaker and Baxter bought radio ads, sponsored by “the Citizens Committee Against the Recall,” in which an ominous voice said, “The real issue is whether the City Hall is to be turned over, lock, stock, and barrel, to an unholy alliance fronting for a faceless man.” (The recall was defeated.) Attack, attack, attack. Whitaker said, “You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!”
Never underestimate the opposition. The first thing Whitaker and Baxter always did, when they took on a campaign, was to “hibernate” for a week, to write a Plan of Campaign. Then they wrote an Opposition Plan of Campaign, to anticipate the moves made against them. Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good. (“For Jimmy and me, vote ‘yes’ on 3.”) Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support.” Say the same thing over and over again. “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.”
Fan flames. “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 advised. “But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.” You can put on a fight (“he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled”), or you can put on a show (“he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades”): “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”
Winner takes all. “If you launch a campaign for a new car, your client doesn’t expect you to lead the field necessarily in the first year, or even the tenth year,” Whitaker once said. “But in politics, they don’t pay off for PLACE OR SHOW! You have to win, if you want to stay in business.”
In 1942, the problem with Earl Warren was that he was grim. Baxter said that, to get women to vote for him, he and his wife had to agree to have a picture of their family taken, and publicized. Warren’s wife, Nina, objected. “She didn’t want to exploit her family,” Baxter said. “But we knew that he had to get that family.” They took a picture—Earl, Nina, and their six children. They look like the Von Trapp Family Singers. Campaigns, Inc., distributed three million copies.
Still, there was no denying that Warren was solemn, and unsmiling. Turn your liabilities into assets! Baxter said that a grave, resolute man was just the kind of man California needed, in time of war. “War-time voters live at an emotional pitch that is anything but normal,” Whitaker wrote. “This must be a campaign that makes people hear the beat of drums and the thunder of bombs. . . . This must be A CALL TO ARMS IN DEFENSE OF CALIFORNIA!”
Warren looked strong on defense partly because, as attorney general, he had advocated for the internment of Japanese-Americans. “If the Japs are released,” he warned, “no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap.” (Warren later publicly expressed great remorse about this policy and, in a 1972 interview, wept over it.) Carey McWilliams was one of the few people in public office to oppose internment. Warren vowed that his first public act as governor would be to fire McWilliams.
In the last thirty days before the election, Whitaker and Baxter advertised in four hundred newspapers and on five hundred billboards. They flooded the airwaves. They sent out sound trucks, to drive around and honk and blast. They attacked Olson’s economic policies. They wrote a speakers’ manual, for anyone giving a speech in support of Warren; it included drafts of a “Six-Minute Talk” and a “Fifteen-Minute Talk.” (Their stock advice: Try not to speak for more than fifteen minutes—people get bored—and never for more than half an hour.)
Warren won, but he didn’t like the way he had won. Just before the election, after Whitaker and Baxter issued a press release without his approval, he fired them. They never forgave him.
In the fall of 1944, Warren got a serious kidney infection. This set him thinking about the rising costs of medical care, and the catastrophic effects that sudden illness could have on a family less well provided for than his own. “I came to the conclusion that the only way to remedy this situation was to spread the cost through insurance,” he wrote in his memoirs. He asked his staff to develop a proposal. “We concluded that health insurance should be collected through the Social Security System. After some studies, it was determined that the employers and employees in that system should each contribute one and one half per cent of wages paid by or to them.” After conferring with the California Medical Association, he anticipated no objections from doctors. And so, in January of 1945, during his State of the State address, he announced his proposal for comprehensive, compulsory health insurance for the state of California.
Earl Warren began his political career as a conservative and ended it as one of the most hated liberals in American history. What happened to him? One answer is: Whitaker and Baxter.
Retained by the California Medical Association for an annual fee of twenty-five thousand dollars to campaign against the Governor’s plan, Whitaker and Baxter took a piece of legislation that most people liked and taught them to hate it. “You can’t beat something with nothing,” they liked to say. They launched a drive for Californians to buy their own insurance, privately. Voluntary Health Insurance Week, driven by forty thousand inches of advertising in more than four hundred newspapers, was observed in fifty-three of the state’s fifty-eight counties. Whitaker and Baxter sent more than nine thousand doctors out with prepared speeches. They coined a slogan: “Political medicine is bad medicine.”
They lobbied newspaper editors. Whitaker boasted that “our people have personally called at more than 500 newspaper offices,” to persuade editors to change their positions. Many of these newspapers did a vast amount of advertising business with Campaigns, Inc., and received hundreds of words of free copy, each week, from the California Feature Service. “In three years,” Whitaker reported, “the number of newspapers supporting socialized medicine has dwindled from fifty to about twenty. The number of papers opposing compulsory health insurance has jumped from about 100 to 432.”
They invented an enemy. They sent out twenty-seven thousand copies of a pamphlet called “The Health Question,” which featured a picture of a man, a woman, and a child in the woods—“a forest of fear”—menaced by skeletons who have in their mouths, instead of teeth, the word “BILL.” Whitaker and Baxter sent out two and a half million copies of another pamphlet, called “Politically-Controlled Medicine.” They printed postcards, for voters to stick in the mail:
Please vote against all Compulsory Health Insurance Bills pending before the Legislature. We have enough regimentation in this country now. Certainly we don’t want to be forced to go to “A State doctor,” or to pay for such a doctor whether we use him or not. That system was born in Germany—and is part and parcel of what our boys are fighting overseas. Let’s not adopt it here.
In 1945, Warren’s bill failed to pass by just one vote. As Warren’s biographer G. Edmund White remarked, “The scuttling of his health insurance plan was a confirmation for Warren of the nature of the political process, in which advocates of programs based on humanity and common sense were pitted against selfish, vindictive special interests.” Warren reintroduced the bill. And again Whitaker and Baxter defeated it. “They stormed the Legislature with their invective,” Warren later wrote, “and my bill was not even accorded a decent burial.” It was the greatest legislative victory at the hands of admen the country had ever seen. It was not, of course, the last.
In 1945, months after Earl Warren proposed compulsory health insurance in California, Harry Truman proposed a national program. “The health of American children, like their education, should be recognized as a definite public responsibility,” the President said. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, Truman’s proposed federal health-insurance program, which, like Warren’s, was funded by a payroll tax, stalled. In his State of the Union address in 1948, an election year, Truman urged passage of his plan, which enjoyed widespread popular support. In November, Truman won the election. Days afterward, the American Medical Association called up the San Francisco offices of Campaigns, Inc. The A.M.A. retained Whitaker and Baxter at a fee of a hundred thousand dollars a year, and with an annual budget of more than a million dollars, to thwart Truman’s plan. The A.M.A. raised the money by assessing twenty-five dollars a year from every one of its members.
At the beginning of 1949, Whitaker and Baxter, the directors of the A.M.A.’s National Education Campaign, entered national politics, setting up headquarters in Chicago, with a staff of thirty-seven. “This must be a campaign to arouse and alert the American people in every walk of life, until it generates a great public crusade and a fundamental fight for freedom,” their Plan of Campaign began. “Any other plan of action, in view of the drift toward socialization and despotism all over the world, would invite disaster.” But when Whitaker told the Washington press corps, at a luncheon, that the F.B.I. was terrorizing the A.M.A., the Washington Post offered that maybe the A.M.A., at the hands of Whitaker and Baxter, ought to stop “whipping itself into a neurosis and attempting to terrorize the whole American public every time the Administration proposes a Welfare Department or a health program.”
Whitaker and Baxter went to Washington and persuaded a hundred congressmen to let them read their constituent mail. At the start of the campaign, Whitaker reported, mail from voters “was running four and half to one in favor” of Truman’s plan. Whitaker and Baxter went to work. “Nine months later it was running four to one against.”
By then, Campaigns, Inc., had come to seem, at least to a handful of critics, nefarious and mysterious. “There isn’t any mystery about it,” Whitaker insisted. In a brilliant maneuver, Whitaker had “A Simplified Blueprint of the Campaign Against Compulsory Health Insurance” distributed, by the hundreds of thousands, to reporters and editors, among others, and to every member of Congress.
Meanwhile, inside Campaigns, Inc., a much more detailed Plan of Campaign circulated, in typescript, marked “CONFIDENTIAL:— NOT FOR PUBLICATION.” (It can be found with the firm’s papers, which are housed at the California State Archives, in Sacramento.) It reads, in part:
1. The immediate objective is the defeat of the compulsory health insurance program pending in Congress. 2. The long-term objective is to put a permanent stop to the agitation for socialized medicine in this country by (a) awakening the people to the danger of a politically-controlled, government-regulated health system; (b) convincing the people, through a Nation wide campaign of education, of the superior advantages of private medicine, as practiced in America, over the State-dominated medical systems of other countries; (c) stimulating the growth of voluntary health insurance systems to take the economic shock out of illness and increase the availability of medical care to the American people.
As Whitaker and Baxter put it, in an earlier version of the plan, “Basically, the issue is whether we are to remain a free Nation, in which the individual can work out his own destiny, or whether we are to take one of the final steps toward becoming a Socialist or Communist State. We have to paint the picture, in vivid verbiage that no one can misunderstand, of Germany, Russia—and finally, England.” They settled on a slogan: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF MEDICINE.” And they settled on a smear, one that they had used against Warren’s plan: they called Truman’s plan “socialized medicine.”
In an attempt to educate every doctor, nurse, and druggist in the United States about the dangers of socialized medicine, they went on the road. Whitaker, speaking to two hundred doctors at a meeting of the Council of the New England Medical Societies, said:
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. Old World contagion of compulsory health insurance, if allowed to spread to our New World, will mark the beginning of the end of free institutions in America. It will only be a question of time until the railroads, the steel mills, the power industry, the banks and the farming industry are nationalized.
Political advertising, he said, was the last best hope of democracy: “We’re going to put the foes of American medicine on trial before the bar of public opinion, and let the people decide.”
To that end, the National Education Campaign sent out millions of pieces of mail. It wasn’t always well met. “RECEIVED YOUR SCARE LETTER. AND HOW PITYFUL,” an angry pharmacist wrote from Stamford, New York. “I DO HOPE PRESIDENT TRUMAN HAS HIS WAY. GOOD LUCK TO HIM.”
Whitaker and Baxter liked to talk about their work as “grass roots” campaigning. The fight against socialized medicine was a case in point: “The A.M.A. in its campaign is carrying its case to the people of America in a grass roots crusade which we hope, with your help, and the help of tens of thousands of others, will reach every corner of this country.” Not everyone was convinced that a lavishly paid advertising agency distributing 7.5 million copies of a pamphlet called “The Voluntary Way Is the American Way” to doctors’ offices constituted a “grass roots” movement. “Dear Sirs,” one doctor wrote them. “Is it 2 ½ or 3 ½ million dollars you have allotted for your ‘grass roots lobby’?”
Whitaker and Baxter’s campaign against Harry Truman’s national-health-insurance proposal cost the A.M.A. nearly five million dollars, and it took more than three years. But they turned the President’s sensible, popular, and urgently needed legislative reform into a bogeyman so scary that, even today, millions of Americans are still scared.
Truman was furious. As to what in his plan could possibly be construed as “socialized medicine,” he told the press in 1952, he didn’t know what in the Sam Hill that could be. He had one more thing to say: there was “nothing in this bill that came any closer to socialism than the payments the American Medical Association makes to the advertising firm of Whitaker and Baxter to misrepresent my health program.”
Carey McWilliams had kept an eye on Whitaker and Baxter since Uppie and Downey, since Ham and Eggs, since Earl Warren and the C.M.A. He pitched to The Nation a story about Whitaker and Baxter. His editor, Harold Field, wanted it straightaway, but McWilliams put him off. He said that he needed to go to San Francisco and “dig out the facts.”
He wrote Whitaker and Baxter, requesting an interview. “The questions are serious and they are neither barbed nor loaded,” he promised. “I really am not captious: I’m simply curious.” He met them. He liked them. He just happened to disagree with their political agenda, and, more, he thought that their business was bad for democracy. He wrote the piece and, in May of 1950, sent Whitaker and Baxter a draft. They read it and sent changes, correcting a few small matters of fact. But they were disappointed by a revised draft.
“We are not quite the diabolical characters you have portrayed,” Whitaker wrote McWilliams. “I am disappointed that you were disappointed,” McWilliams replied. “Don’t you agree that about the best we can hope for or expect on this score is the maximum good will, factual accuracy, and the observance of some fundamentals of fair play?”
“Government by Whitaker and Baxter” appeared in The Nation in three parts, in April and May of 1951. Whitaker and Baxter wrote McWilliams, “It seems to both of us that while you have not spared the spurs where you feel they will do the most good, you certainly have not done anything to injure Whitaker and Baxter personally. Everything considered, that may have been quite a strain. We are deeply grateful, Carey.”
McWilliams, as Whitaker and Baxter must have very well understood, had played by different rules from theirs. He hadn’t been simple. He hadn’t attacked them. He had taken time to explain. He hadn’t invented an enemy. He hadn’t taken remarks out of context. He hadn’t made anything up. He hadn’t lied.
“In labor and liberal circles in California people hiss when Whitaker and Baxter are mentioned,” he reported in The Nation, “but it must be acknowledged that they know how to reach the people. True, they have had lots of money to spend; but their opponents have not always been broke, either.” He talked about how much money unions had, for instance. McWilliams did, however, believe that Whitaker and Baxter had too much power. For the A.M.A., they had written, he said, “a political script in which doctors, originally cast as special-interest heavies, emerge as crusaders for the people’s health.” It was incredible. And it was dangerous. “This is expert political management; this is government by Whitaker and Baxter.” This is how we live now.
The piece was not without effect. By 1952, a number of doctors had resigned from the A.M.A. James H. Means, Jackson professor of Medicine at Harvard and the chief of medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, explained that he was no longer willing to pay dues that had been used to support an activity that he considered “contrary to public welfare and unworthy of a learned profession.”
That fall, the A.M.A. let Whitaker and Baxter go, explaining that it had decided that keeping the agency on retainer would compromise its nonpartisan status. Whitaker and Baxter were untroubled. They went to work for Eisenhower-Nixon.
In 1952, television was used, for the first time, in a Presidential campaign. In 1948, less than three per cent of American homes had a television; by 1952, that figure was fast approaching fifty per cent. That year, Republicans spent $1.5 million on television advertising; Democrats spent seventy-seven thousand dollars. On television, spots for Eisenhower—“I Like Ike” and “The Man from Abilene”—whose themes were based on George Gallup’s polling, masqueraded as documentaries; they looked like the March of Time newsreels.
Eisenhower was so unfamiliar with recording equipment that once, in front of a microphone, which was on, he grumbled, “How the hell does this thing work?” But, like everyone running for office after him, he was coached, and groomed, and buffed, and polished. And made up. In a TV spot called “Eisenhower Answers America,” a young black man says, “General, the Democrats are telling me I never had it so good.” Eisenhower replies, “Can that be true, when America is billions in debt, when prices have doubled, when taxes break our backs, and we are still fighting in Korea? It’s tragic.” Then he looks, sternly, straight into the camera. “It’s time for a change.”
In 1953, Earl Warren became Chief Justice of the United States. The “Impeach Earl Warren” campaign began not long after Warren wrote the Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, declaring school segregation unconstitutional. In 1955, Carey McWilliams became the editor of The Nation. In 1956, Whitaker and Baxter did P.R. for the G.O.P. Nominating Convention, in San Francisco. Meanwhile, they were interviewed by a Special Senate Committee to Investigate Political Activities, Lobbying, and Campaign Contributions. Whitaker told the committee he opposed government funding of campaigns and favored lifting restrictions on corporate campaign donations. The committee’s investigators puzzled over campaign consultants. Should they be classed as lobbyists? As political-action committees? Shouldn’t they be regulated? Whitaker insisted that the work his firm did constituted grassroots organizing, and should not to be subject to any regulation.
Later that year, Whitaker and Baxter, working with the California firm of Baus and Ross, campaigned on behalf of Proposition 4, a ballot measure favoring the oil industry and giving it more license to drill. The measure was written by attorneys for Standard Oil. Whitaker and Baxter prevailed, mainly by getting the referendum’s name changed to the Oil and Gas Conservation Act.
In 1958, Whitaker’s oldest son by his first marriage, Clem Whitaker, Jr., bought Campaigns, Inc., with two partners. In 1960, when Nixon ran for President, Campaigns, Inc., organized his campaign in California. “The great need is to go on the offensive—and to attack,” one of Whitaker’s partners advised. Best to forget “the liberal Democrats who wouldn’t vote for Nixon if he received the joint personal endorsement of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx via a séance with Eleanor Roosevelt.” Nixon won California but lost the election. He was terrible on television. “It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” Kennedy said. By now, Democrats were beginning to hire political-consulting firms, too. Everyone did. It was an arms race.
Clem Whitaker, Sr., died of emphysema in 1961. Four years later, when Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California, he hired the California firm of Spencer-Roberts. Spencer-Roberts used the Whitaker and Baxter rule book. “You know something, Stu?” Reagan said to Stuart Spencer in 1966. “Politics is just like show business. . . . You begin with a hell of an opening, you coast for a while, and you end with a hell of a closing.”
Upton Sinclair died in a nursing home in New Jersey in 1968. That year, H. R. Haldeman left his job as manager of the Los Angeles office of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to run Nixon’s Presidential campaign. Haldeman had offered his services to Eisenhower-Nixon in 1952, and worked for the Vice-President’s campaign in 1956. He had learned the tools of the trade from the best of them. “Whitaker and Baxter was the great old campaign,” he once said, remembering the old days, “the granddaddy.”
“Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we’re talking about,” the Nixon adviser William Gavin wrote in a memo. “Reason requires a higher degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier,” he wrote in another memo. “Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand. . . . When we argue with him we demand that he make the effort of replying. We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.”
The Nixon campaign studied the tapes of its candidate on television. Insufficient emotion. “He still uses his arms a little too ‘predictably’ and a little too often,” Roger Ailes, Richard Nixon’s chief television adviser, said in 1968. “But at this point it is better not to inhibit him.” Ailes is now the president of Fox News.
After Clem Whitaker died, Leone Baxter continued to run a firm of her own, Whitaker and Baxter International. She lived in a penthouse apartment at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. She liked to work behind the scenes. In all her long life—she died in 2001, at the age of ninety-five—she rarely gave interviews. She made an exception in the nineteen-sixties. She was asked, “Do the procedures you designed early in the game and utilized so successfully over the years, Leone, still work today, or have you found it necessary to change them?”
“The basic rules I would say are wholly unchanged,” she said. “The strategies are unchanged.” There was television, of course. “But I would say that the philosophy of political campaigning hasn’t changed a whit. The tools have changed, the philosophy has not.”
She was also asked, “Does political public relations actually transfer political power into the hands of those who exercise it?”
“It certainly could and has in some instances,” she said, carefully. “In this profession of leading men’s minds, this is the reason I feel it must be in the hands of the most ethical, principled people—people with real concern for the world around them, for people around them—or else it will erode into the hands of people who have no regard for the world around them. It could be a very, very destructive thing.” ♦