Last September, Jill Lepore unearthed an incredible bit of history, a piece of the American past that is alive with us today, and more dangerous than ever. (I am generally interested in anything Lepore writes; last year I gushed over her reviews of books about Clarence Darrow, one of my abiding heroes.)
In this piece, Lepore writes about the roots of political advertising - the falsehoods and trickery, the lies and slander, the deception and distortion, the swiftboating and smearing that make us grit our teeth in frustration. The advertising firms that design and disseminate those orchestrated lies can be traced back to one company, an operation called Campaigns Inc.
Its first victim was Upton Sinclair, the writer and socialist and one-time candidate for Governor of California. He called it The Lie Factory.
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.”If you like history and you deplore the Lie Factory, you will love this article: The Lie Factory: How politics became a business, by Jill Lepore.
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.