Mrs Penfire Reads a Book

Ever wonder how things got to be the way they are in the “land of the free home of the brave?” Certainly, the America I’ve experienced as an adult is markedly different from the one I learned about in school.

Ideals collide with reality

And yet the idealized schoolgirl concept of The United States remains vivid in my mind and heart: brave Columbus and his men making landfall in the New World; the Pilgrims of Plymouth sharing a turkey dinner with the Indians (who taught them to bury a fish in the soil at the base of their corn stalks for fertilizer); the Revolution (George Washington standing in a boat); the Civil War (Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address and freeing the slaves); the Pioneers and the Gold Rush (“Go West Young Man, Go West”); and from that point all was well (except maybe for The Depression, and two World Wars in which America came to the rescue of Europe and saved the world).

And throughout all this it was Democracy in Action: One Man, One Vote. The Majority Rules. Right?

Well, not exactly. It’s been a little more complicated than that.

For a thoroughgoing look at those complications, I recommend These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. I borrowed the book from the library. But fair warning: it’s so long—960 pages—and every page is so dense with information that I found it slow going. Yet well worth the effort. I had to renew the book twice, which means it took me nine weeks to get through it… and I was frustrated because I wanted to underline, and highlight, and make notes in the margins. I intend to purchase my own copy and reread it (some day… when I have nine weeks to spare). But I’m definitely going to wait for the paperback, in hopes that it will weigh a little less than the hardcover (2.8 pounds), which had my wrists aching by the time I was done.

It would be truly foolhardy of me to try to summarize the contents of the book because, for one thing, you already know the story of American history (if not, see the second paragraph above). This book provides the all the backstories. Here’s just one example.

Have you ever heard of Campaigns, Inc.?

Neither had I. Campaigns, Inc, the world’s first political consulting firm had its genesis in California in 1933, when Clem Whitaker (a former political reporter) and Leone Baxter were hired by Pacific Gas & Electric to help defeat a referendum. Their success as a team led them to marry and to start the firm that came to be called, by its critics “the Lie Factory.”

In 1934 when Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California his opponent hired Whitaker and Baxter to defeat Pulitzer Prize winning author, a self-proclaimed socialist (maybe the Bernie Sanders of his day). The two “locked themselves in a room for three days with everything Sinclair had ever written,” explains Lepore, and emerged with enough quotations to ensure his defeat. “By running the thoughts and words of fictional characters, taken out of context, the team could have readers believing just about anything.”

Their modus operandi:
Every campaign needs a theme; keep it simple
Never explain anything.
Say the same thing over and over again.
Subtlety is your enemy
Don’t make the Average American Citizen work or think.
Make it personal.
If your candidate or position doesn’t have an opposition, invent one.
Pretend to be the voice of the people.
Attack! Attack! Attack! You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!
Never underestimate the opposition.
Never shy from controversy;
Put on a fight or put on a show.

Does all this sound familiar?

It should because “the campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California and of the country.”

Whitaker and Baxter ran Earl Warren’s successful campaign for governor of California in 1942. But despite the fact that he won, Warren was dismayed with their tactics and fired them. Thus, when the two were hired by the California Medical Association to defeat Warren’s universal health insurance proposal, they relished the assignment, and went at it with a vengeance. The legislation failed by just one vote. “It was the greatest legislative victory at the hands of admen the country had ever seen,” was Warren’s assessment.

The following year, when Truman (who had made universal health care a plank in his Fair New Deal platform) beat Dewey, The American Medical Association was aghast. They hired Whitaker and Baxter for the not inconsiderable sum of $100,000 a year, and gave them a million dollar budget to defeat the President’s plan. Which they did.

Whitaker and Baxter ran Eisenhower’s campaign in 1952; they managed the Republican convention in 1956 and orchestrated the choice of Richard Nixon as Ike’s running mate. This on the heels of their successful work for passage of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Act . (Alaska still territory administered by the Federal government back then) The legislation, which would expand drilling opportunities was written by Standard Oil; its benign-sounding name was the creation of Campaigns, Inc.

Although Clem Whitaker died in 1961, his influence on American political campaigns lives on, perhaps most succinctly characterized in the speech John Kenneth Galbraith wrote for Adlai Stevenson, which described “Nixonland” as “the land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen….” Does this not foretell today’s political landscape where many candidates spend more time vilifying their opponents than promoting their own ideas?

Follow the money

The art of swaying public opinion functions hand-in-hand with today’s billion-dollar polling industry. It began with Campaigns, Inc., and George Gallup’s earliest polls in the 1930s. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The public discourse set in motion by the by entwined enterprises of consultants and pollsters inevitably divides the electorate by zeroing in on the issues most likely to motivate voters. These issues, as it turns out, are the ones upon which the most people are the most passionate—and the most inflexible. The most obvious examples: Abortion. And guns.

Are you surprised?

Prepare for the worst. Strive for the best.

The story of Whitaker and Baxter is just one thread in an enormous tapestry. If you’re surprised that you never heard of Campaigns, Inc., I promise, you have many more surprises in store if you decide to read this book. Another of my favorites:, the evolution of the NRA.

The real story of American history is a lot messier than the one we learned in school. But if we don’t know what the real is, we will be floundering around blindly as we strive for the ideal.