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Books: American Mudslingers

Books | Think the 1996 political campaign is unique? Think again

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

History does not repeat itself. But there are times when the resemblances are so remarkable, you can see why people might think that it does. Already the acrimonious 1996 primary season has been styled by various pundits in the national media as a rerun of several previous campaigns-in 1896, 1912, and 1952. But two brilliant books-one new, the other recently reprinted-suggest other, still more striking comparisons. The Campaign of the Century by Greg Mitchell tells the story of Upton Sinclair's quixotic 1934 gubernatorial campaign in California. In the process, it also describes in excruciating detail the birth of modern big-money, big-media politics. Mr. Sinclair was a plain-spoken political maverick who had established a pit bull reputation as a muckraking social reformer and commentator. He was the author of such best-selling books as The Jungle, King Coal, and The Goose-Step-and thus had staked a claim as an authentic champion of the common man. His populist campaign, fueled by the untempered enthusiasm of thousands of grassroots volunteers, quaked the political establishment to its very core. In fact, according to Time magazine, no one since William Jennings Bryan had so offended the vested interests and so frightened the entrenched powers. Eventually it took every political ploy, strategy, innuendo, called favor, and dirty trick in the book to defeat his effort. Terrified by the prospect of an irreverent, shoot-from-the-hip, slide-rule intellectual with a gruffly unapologetic populist philosophy running the state, the minions of the established order raised the hue and cry of alarm. Opposing forces from both the Democrats and the Republicans hired professional consultants, engaged advertising specialists, and rallied the compliant media to call into question Sinclair's character, motives, associations, and intentions. A virtual Who's Who of popular American culture-including Franklin Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Earl Warren, Louis Mayer, Dorothy Parker, and H.L. Mencken-played key roles in what turned out to be one of the most intense electoral battles in this century. Mr. Mitchell has done yeoman's service in affording us this startling look at our present political quagmire-through the lens of the past. A Texan Looks at Lyndon by J. Evetts Haley is nothing short of a publishing phenomenon-arguably one of the most significant investigations of political campaigning ever produced. Though it was unanimously ignored by reviewers and bookstore retailers, it sold nearly six million copies in the months following its initial release in 1964. It tells the sordid tale of Lyndon Johnson's rise to power. Mr. Haley's masterful description of how entrenched interests pulled strings, slung mud, and invoked fear is hauntingly familiar-often reading like this morning's headlines. We can all be grateful that the Haley Memorial Library Trust in the author's adopted hometown of Midland, Texas, has chosen to reissue this classic in a handsome hardback edition, newly annotated and indexed. In this mean season of Back to the Future political dirty tricks, it is both instructive and comforting to realize that while history may not actually repeat itself, there is indeed "nothing new under the sun."

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