BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last week on this show, we talked about the 1934 California gubernatorial race of Upton Sinclair against Frank F. Merriam and how Sinclair was undone by a political campaign of unprecedented coordination and ferocity. This included tactics like the out-of-context quotation, relentless pamphleteering and what they now call opposition research, techniques new at the time but these days part of the standard playbook.
The masterminds behind that campaign were named Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, the owners of Campaigns, Inc., the world’s first political consulting firm. Jill Lepore profiled Campaigns, Inc. in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Jill, welcome to OTM.
JILL LEPORE: Hey, thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Who were these people?
JILL LEPORE: They come from the world of newspaper journalism, but they also are borrowing from the techniques of the modern advertising business that’s just started. Clem Whitacker had been a, a longtime newspaper reporter. He also founded a wire service, the California Feature Service. And Leone Baxter, who’s this young widow, is hired to work with him on his first political campaign. They fall in love, he divorces his firm wife and marries her. They work behind the scenes. No one really pays much attention to who they are. You know, Upton Sinclair writes a book about what’s been done to him, and he calls it “The Lie Factory” but he doesn’t even really know who’s done it, who’s behind it. They use invented organizations to print pamphlets all the time. So, it’s very different from political consultants today who very much adore the limelight and are very much celebrities.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, semi-anonymous as they were, they dominated this fledgling industry, winning 70 out of 75 campaigns. What was their secret sauce?
JILL LEPORE: Well, the first thing they do is they hibernate for a weekend or a number of days when they’re hired by any campaign, and they come up with a plan of campaign; they come up with all the rhetoric that they’re gonna use, exactly the way they’re gonna position their candidate. Then they write an opposition plan of campaign, to imagine that there was someone actually opposing them. But there is no opposition. [LAUGHS] There are no other political consulting firms before the 1950s [LAUGHS], so they’re just really fighting their own shadow, they’re boxing in the dark. But Whitacker says there’s only two ways to interest Mr. or Mrs. America in a political campaign. You either have to put on a fight or you have to put on a show.It’s no coincidence that political consulting comes out of California. It’s very much bound up with Hollywood. Whitacker and Baxter had a rule. You know, if you have to explain something, you’ve already lost the issue, you – that you never explain. Your obligation is to simplify the message and to go on the attack. You can’t win a defensive campaign.
BOB GARFIELD: One of their tricks was to come up with an allegation and just repeat it endlessly, no matter how, you know, dubious its merits.
JILL LEPORE: Among their rules was this: you have to say something seven times to make a sale.
BOB GARFIELD: It also has echoes of Goebbels, the dynamics of the big lie. Were they on the same track?
JILL LEPORE: You know, it’s something that people in the 1930s were very concerned about with radio, in general. There’s a lot of concern in the thirties about propaganda in Europe. There’s, obviously, a lot of concern about the border between fact and fiction in American radio broadcasting. They just think about “War of the Worlds” and the controversy that that sparks. Baxter, in particular, later in life, looking back at the work she had done, thought about – was there a difference between what she was doing and Nazi propaganda, not obviously at the level of content. She thought what she was doing was principled and that her political arguments were – sincere. And I think they, indeed, were sincere. But I think she had come to understand, and this is reflected in this quite powerful oral history interview that’s conducted with her later in her life, you know, that it’s like sort of believing in a benevolent dictatorship. You – you can’t accept that these tools are a good thing, if it depends on the nobility of the intentions of the people who hold them.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s so spooky about your New Yorker piece is how much it seems to presage what goes on today. Tell me about the campaign against government-mandated [LAUGHS] health insurance.
JILL LEPORE: Whitaker and Baxter were first hired in the State of California to defeat Earl Warren’s proposed statewide health insurance program in the forties, They had actually gotten Warren elected governor but he had then fired then. He was pretty concerned about the methods that they used. He proposed a health insurance program. They were hired by – Whitacker and Baxter were hired by the California Medical Association to defeat it. They used all their classical methods. They decided that what Warren was proposing was creeping socialism. They invoked the specter of Stalinism. They defeated it successfully by one vote, Warren was outraged. Harry Truman then picked up the cause. Both in California and nationwide, compulsory health insurance was incredibly popular. What Whitaker and Baxter did when they were hired then subsequently by the American Medical Association was take those same techniques that they’d used to defeat health insurance in California and bring them to the nation at large. And they did so very much with an eye toward defeating not only that proposal that Truman had offered but health insurance forever afterward. They tell the AMA, you are hiring us not just to defeat this piece of legislation. You are hiring us to put an end forever to the idea that the federal government could have anything to do with healthcare.
BOB GARFIELD: This whole conversation, Jill, is premised on the idea that Campaigns, Inc. created in the thirties is the template for all modern political campaigning. You mentioned that Baxter was herself interviewed late in her career. I guess she was asked about that issue. What was her response?
JILL LEPORE: She lived ‘til she was 95, so she saw a lot of change over the course of her lifetime. She admitted that a lot of the tools of political consulting had changed, ‘cause mainly you’d be using television by the time she was being interviewed. And she had almost never used television in the course of her career. But the basic philosophy and the messages that you would give your candidates, the way you would control candidates – one of the things that’s so interesting about political consultants, a lot of research has shown that political consultants actually determine what issues are raised in a campaign. Candidates almost never even make that decision anymore. Baxter saw that, knew that. That had been how she had run her business starting in 1933.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so if we agree that this kind of political consulting is repulsive in its cynicism, in its manipulation of the electorate, it’s also completely protected by the thing we hold most dear, the First Amendment. Are we doomed to this kind of political cancer – forever?
JILL LEPORE: Oh, I don’t think so. There was a great moment in the fifties when this political scientist named Stanley Kelley went around and interviewed a bunch of political consultants who were just starting out, and he – you know, wrote this book about the founding of this industry, and he said, you know, what’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen with this stuff? And [LAUGHS] one guy says to him, I give it a few months ‘cause really, we’re sellin’ so much baloney, how – how much longer could anybody possibly believe a word we’re telling them?
[LAUGHING] You know? And you look at the footnote and it’s this interview conducted in like June of 1955, and you’re thinking, man, okay, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s – I think it’s just around the corner.
BOB GARFIELD: Jill, thank you so much.
JILL LEPORE: All right, thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book is titled, “The Story of America.”