Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) was a rare bird in American politics--a literary writer by trade. He had risen to fame as the author of a damning indictment of the Chicago meat-packing industry. "The Jungle" became a huge success and help push through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907--the first time that the federal government began inspecting meat and poultry products to guard the public health. The Act created the United States Food and Drug Administration, much to the howls of protest by the meat-packing industry, whose incredibly unsanitary conditions were previously brushed aside despite consumers being poisoned and workers in the plants themselves testifying to all sorts of food contamination from using sick animals or mixing inedible substances into canned meat.
President Theodore Roosevelt, whose "Rough Rider" troops had suffered from disease and even death from tainted meat shipped to them in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, met with Sinclair in the White House after reading his book. He redoubled his efforts and sent Department of Agriculture officials to Chicago to check out the claims in the novel. Sinclair--who earlier gained access to the giant slaughter pens run by Armour Meats and other corporations, took careful and copious notes and interviewed workers and sympathetic managers--was vindicated.
Although Sinclair's main reason for writing the book was to call attention to the plight of over taxed and seemingly disposable workers in the meat-packing industry, his book troubled the average person in America more for its depiction of rotten beef and sausage in the stores. Nevertheless it was a victory for the progressive movement of that time.
Our story now shifts to 1934. Franklin Roosevelt (Teddy's fifth cousin) has been elected President two years earlier. The national mood was ready for another round of reform and regulations, if anything more so. Sinclair has been a prolific writer for the past quarter-century, literally churning out dozens of articles for his own and other magazines, as well as novels and book-length pamphlets attacking all the major institutions of the United States, from the churches to the press to big business and even higher education. (Sinclair himself had worked his way through City College of New York, writing pulp novels of little political content.) He was living as a celebrity with his wife in Pasadena and Beverly Hills, a Socialist Party member making friends with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein (the latter was a visiting professor at Cal Tech in Pasadena).
Sensing that the high unemployment numbers (and the lack of concern among many business leaders satisfied to invest in the jobless) was creating a void the regular political candidates in the state capital, Sacramento, weren't filling, Lewis entered the race.
He lost the race, after a very promising start where he received more votes in a primary than any candidate in state history, due in no small part to a concerted effort by big money interests in Southern California's agriculture, manufacturing and movie business. Their efforts, which featured unlimited money and secretive organizations sending out often fabricated and out-of-context negative attacks on Sinclair, were highly effective.
Some historians see the 1934 race in California as the model for the modern "dirty" mass-media campaigning we see today, and will likely see more of now that corporations and billionaires can spend whatever they like against a candidate and the public will not likely know whom these purveyors of"free speech"--speech monopolized on radio and television and the main Internet ads--really are.
Big business was not Sinclair's only enemy. The Communist Party of California denounced the EPIC program as "social fascism", especially after the candidate began to modify and moderate it. The Socialist Party also aimed fire at Sinclair's reputation for switching political parties. And FDR was wary of supporting a candidate who was further left than he was on economic issues. Even Lewis' son David thought he was wasting his time. But the big blows came from business leaders, with MGM Studios boss Louis B. Mayer--the highest paid executive in the USA in 1934-- and the heads of major Otis Chandler and W.R. Hearst newspapers in California.
For more on how the anti-Sinclair/EPIC campaign happened see the first comment in this blog. And thanks for stopping by and forgive me this rather long blog.