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Whitaker and Baxter at Work

The expression of common purpose required the articulation of a message that could unite diverse interests under a single banner. Whitaker and Baxter were particularly talented in this regard, and it was their effective use of media as a tool of public persuasion that made the pair so valuable to their clients and distinguished them from other political operatives working in California at the time. As Stanley Kelley put it, “Whitaker and Baxter are interested in building public attitudes and in standardizing opinions about particular political issues. Success ... requires study and selection of political ‘markets,’ alternative ways of framing appeals, and methods of distributing ideas.”17 Clem Whitaker put it this way, “Words still mold the minds of men—and still direct the ebb and flow of their emotions.”18 Distinguishing his methods from the old-style politics of the past, Whitaker wrote that “machine politics never could stand the light of a hard-hitting, modern day public relations and advertising campaign.”19 For Leone Baxter, the essence of their innovation was “building specific public opinion—on highly-contested issues—within set time limits.” This modern business of politics consisted of “trained personnel, paid in prideful fees, not patronage,” whose expertise was essential to securing popular support whether on behalf of a ballot measure, a legislative initiative, or an individual candidate.20

To that end, Whitaker and Baxter developed a keen sense of messaging, selecting campaign themes that drew stark contrasts between their position and the opposition. Frequently, this meant offering a positive alternative or proposal to the measure under consideration. As Leone Baxter put it, “You can’t beat something with nothing ... a negative, wholly attacking campaign isn’t sound.”21 In addition, Whitaker and Baxter understood the difficulty of holding public attention; they developed concise messages and slogans that could be communicated easily through a variety of media. Working on behalf of the California Teachers Association, for example, Whitaker and Baxter cleverly reframed the issue of teachers’ salaries as a matter of educational quality: “We are not championing the teachers, primarily; we are championing the right of the children of California to have competent instruction—and they can’t continue to have that, if we permit teaching to become a cast-off profession, starved by our failure to recognize the crisis which confronts us.”22

Finally, Whitaker and Baxter saw the electorate as composed of a diverse mix of interests. In order to reach these different audiences, the firm targeted messages at specific groups considered to be strategically important for the campaign. As Stanley Kelley explained, “[Whitaker and Baxter] are acutely aware ... of the individual’s multi-group affiliation.” Consequently, a practitioner like Whitaker or Baxter “must activate the group loyalties that he wants to operate,” as well as “approach the voter through a variety of media and with a variety of arguments aimed at different sides of his political personality.”23 According to Baxter, “The masses are also individuals ... classifying people too categorically is dangerous. ... A Democrat is not solely a Democrat; he may also be a farmer, a truck driver, a salesman, teacher—or even a Dixiecrat.”24 As we have seen with other practitioners, such as Edward Bernays, the mid-century professional imagined ways to activate certain dimensions of political identification deemed strategic for a particular goal or purpose. In Stanley Kelley’s estimation, Whitaker and Baxter possessed “an intuitive feel for political marketing conditions.”25

Whitaker and Baxter’s work on behalf of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company is illustrative in this regard. The powerful utility company owned exclusive rights to sell water and power from the Hetch Hetchy dam and reservoir to the City of San Francisco. Seeking to break the company’s monopoly, public utility advocates put a series of bond measures before the voters of San Francisco that would have allowed the construction of a public system of power generation. In order to defeat the measure, Whitaker and Baxter developed a strategy to undermine support by shifting discussion away from the merits of public ownership and toward an ongoing struggle between the City of San Francisco and the federal government over water rights in California, reframing the issue as one of federal interference in state and local affairs.26 “This campaign will require smart boxing as well as some two-fisted slugging,” the pair wrote. “We strongly recommend a positive, constructive campaign to marshal public opinion, hammering away constantly at the fact that San Francisco has been viciously discriminated against [by the federal government].”27 The benefit of this strategy was clear. By turning the question of public ownership of utilities into a battle with Washington, DC, Whitaker and Baxter drew attention away from the efforts of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to defeat the bond measure and protect its profits.

Whitaker and Baxter also recognized that the bond issue touched on a variety of interests and concerns among San Francisco residents. The struggle over federal power and local control was just one of “many different aspects of the issue which can be interpreted and used most effectively with special groups.”28 Building coalitions was critical, and by emphasizing the cost of the Hetch Hetchy bonds, Whitaker and Baxter could appeal to a range of groups fearful of the effects a debt-burdened city government might have on their particular interests. “Every special group in San Francisco ... can be made an active, crusading campaign group against Hetch Hetchy bonds,” Whitaker and Baxter concluded.29 This included public sector workers concerned about salary cuts, as well as homeowners and taxpayers opposed to a “deluge of debt.”30 In addition, business interests of all kinds would rally around the larger issue of government power as “every business man who fears eventual government invasion of his field of work can be reached with the message that it is time to stop political encroachment on private enterprise.”31

Throughout their career, Whitaker and Baxter frequently conjured similar fears of government run amok.

Whitaker and Baxter often targeted their campaign messages to specific audiences. As the team explained in a campaign memorandum, “With so many special groups ... interested for their own special reasons, we should have highly specialized literature,” including “special direct-mail campaigns . conducted to reach the rank and file.”32 Whitaker and Baxter understood that reaching an audience was not easy. Effective communication required the right media as well as the right message. Whitaker and Baxter campaigns typically used billboards, direct mail, newspaper advertisements, and, of course, radio. In the case of the latter, Whitaker and Baxter advised “spending a large portion of the radio budget in short, dramatized skits, spot announcements, and news broadcasts, with our campaign material worked into the news.” For the Hetch Hetchy bond measure, Campaigns, Inc., purchased airtime on five San Francisco stations, running a mixture of spots and longer broadcasts almost every day leading up to the vote.33

In order to track the efficacy of their efforts, Whitaker and Baxter gathered information about the voters whom they sought to influence. Again, the particular features of California politics offered distinct advantages in this regard. Because of the preponderance of direct legislation, a lucrative business developed in collecting the needed signatures to place a measure on the ballot. During the Hetch Hetchy campaign, Whitaker and Baxter hired Robinson & Company, which enjoyed a near monopoly on the signature collection business, to circulate a petition calling for congressional repeal of the federal legislation that governed water rights in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. However, the immediate purpose of the petition was not to lobby Congress but rather to provide precinct-level assessments of public opinion. Writing to Clem Whitaker a week before the vote, the principal of the firm, Joe Robinson, reported that his company interviewed more than 300,000 people. Based on the reports of his staff, Robinson confidently predicted that “you will defeat the bond issue by not less than twenty thousand votes.” In fact, the bond measure was defeated by almost a two-to-one margin, 67,214 for and 114,879 against.34

As the Hetch Hetchy campaign illustrates, Whitaker and Baxter tailored their methods to the needs of California business, especially the threat posed by ballot initiatives that placed economic policy in the hands of the voting public. These same techniques proved highly effective on behalf of political candidates as well, an advantage that also stemmed from California’s unique politics. At the turn of the twentieth century, powerful railroads dominated the Republican Party and enjoyed unparalleled control over state politics until a series of reforms hobbled party organizations. In addition to the initiative, referendum, and recall, California Progressives instituted a unique system of cross-filing that allowed candidates for state and federal office to run in multiple party primaries without any party identification on the ballot. By the 1940s, when Whitaker and Baxter reached the height of their influence in California politics, 80 percent of the state’s assembly districts and a majority of US congressional seats were held by candidates who had captured the nomination of the two main parties, rendering the general election a mere formality.35 In addition to California’s unique electoral rules, exceptionally high rates of in-migration and geographically dispersed communities throughout the state made it difficult to establish the kind of local party organizations more commonly found in urban centers of the East.36

These factors produced a weakly affiliated electorate. A 1942 analysis of national politics by political scientist Harold Gosnell concluded that “the most striking fact” of voting behavior in California “is the almost complete absence ... of any party discipline.” Instead, Gosnell observed, voters “changed their party allegiances from election to election in accordance with changing issues and personalities.”37 Carey McWilliams, perhaps the most astute observer of California politics of his day, placed much of the blame on the state’s “notorious cross-filing procedure,” which had “made a shambles of party regularity and party discipline in California.”38 A more recent analysis confirms these earlier conclusions, adding that “it is difficult to overstate the destructive effect cross-filing had on local party organizations.”39 In sum, Whitaker and Baxter worked in a political climate where parties failed to provide meaningful cues to voters or operate as effective organizations for the conduct of elections.

As one might expect, weak party organizations and fickle partisan attachments had important consequences for the conduct of political campaigns. According to McWilliams, “Candidates think in terms of personal machines, personal followings, individual campaigns, and not in terms of party organization.”40 The result was a “freewheeling style of politics,” in which “candidates must depend on individual political merchandising” in order to win office.41 In other words, McWilliams concluded, “They must ‘sell’ themselves as candidates.”42 Accordingly, Whitaker and Baxter tailored their services to the needs of individual candidates by focusing on the personalities and issue positions of their clients rather than their party affiliation. This included tactics designed to build up support for their candidate by diminishing the stature of their opponent in the eyes of the electorate. Although the practice is commonplace today, Whitaker and Baxter perfected an early form of the negative campaign.

This highly personal and occasionally nasty style of electoral politics began early in Whitaker and Baxter’s career. In 1934, only a year after forming Campaigns, Inc., Whitaker and Baxter landed their first statewide race when George Hatfield hired them to manage his bid for lieutenant governor. Although Hatfield ran on the Republican ticket with gubernatorial candidate Frank Merriam, voters would cast separate ballots for the top two offices in the state. However, a strong showing by social activist and writer Upton Sinclair in the Democratic primary left Merriam looking vulnerable and Hatfield’s camp unsure if or how California voters might split their tickets. Although the Republican Hatfield might position himself as a balance to Sinclair, voters might prefer Merriam for the top spot and choose the Democrat for lieutenant governor instead. In short, Hatfield had to wage his own campaign, and he turned to Whitaker and Baxter to do it. The strategy they employed, and one they would reproduce in many subsequent campaigns, was to build up the positive qualities of their candidate even as they sought every opportunity to undercut the credibility of their opponent.43

The challenge for Whitaker and Baxter in 1934 was that both Hatfield and the Democratic candidate, Sheridan Downey, were relative newcomers to politics with little record to run on or past controversy to exploit. However, what Hatfield and Downey lacked in excitement was made up for by the presence in the race of Upton Sinclair. A former member of the Socialist Party, Sinclair attracted broad support from the state’s poor and working class as he promised to turn idle factories and farmland into cooperatives for the unemployed. As Sinclair’s popularity grew, Whitaker and Baxter waged a bitter campaign against him, mining the author’s many books for controversial quotes that when taken out of context portrayed Sinclair as a dangerous radical.44 Operating through a front organization, the California League Against Sinclairism (CLAS), Whitaker and Baxter flooded the state’s newspapers with editorials and canned news items warning of the dangers of “Sinclairism.” According to historian Greg Mitchell, CLAS was funded by “big-money interests” and led by “hard-knuckled politicos” in the California Republican Party. However, Whitaker and Baxter’s media campaign carefully avoided partisanship or party labels in order to convince Democratic voters to support the GOP candidates Merriam and Hatfield.45 In words likely written by Clem Whitaker, George Hatfield told an audience of veterans, “This campaign is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between believers in American institutions and those that wish to implant State socialism.” Hatfield even called Sinclair “an adroit propagandist who ... has advocated everything from nudism and free love to Bolshevism.”46 Earl Warren, chair of the California Republican Central Committee, hit upon similar themes: “This is no longer a campaign between the Republican and Democratic Party in California. . It is a crusade of Americans and Californians against Radicalism and Socialism.”47 In order to stoke fears of social upheaval, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios produced a short film in the style of a newsreel that purported to show hobos streaming into California from across the country in anticipation of a Sinclair victory.48

Frank Merriam soundly defeated Upton Sinclair, and George Hatfield won his race for lieutenant governor. The following year, Sinclair penned a book entitled I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked, in which he described his defeat at the hands of “the biggest business men in California,” whose “staff of political chemists” prepared “poisons to be let loose in the California Atmosphere.”49 Sinclair called it “The Lie Factory.” In fact, Sinclair had encountered a new kind of campaign that combined modern media with highly personalized negative attacks. As Greg Mitchell documents, the campaign against Sinclair was a harbinger of things to come.50

Although few races matched the vitriol of the 1934 campaign, or attracted as much national attention, the methods Whitaker and Baxter employed became stock-in-trade for subsequent clients. During their career together, Whitaker and Baxter ran a number of prominent California campaigns, including those of Mayor Elmer Robinson of San Francisco and Governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight. The 1954 gubernatorial race, in particular, repeated many of the same tactics that Whitaker and Baxter first employed in 1934. Although Knight’s opponent, Richard Graves, had been a registered Republican before switching to the Democratic Party, Whitaker and Baxter portrayed Graves as a captive of the extreme left and launched attacks on Graves and other Democratic candidates through a shadowy organization called the Democratic Conference against Radical Party Leadership.51 Meanwhile, Whitaker and Baxter exploited divisions in the state’s labor movement to secure support from the California American Federation of Labor, including the “Labor for Knight” committee that distributed campaign literature attacking Graves’s Republican past. All the while, Knight stayed above the fray, his campaign speeches made up of trite remarks as he traveled around the state telling voters, “You are a smiling, happy, prosperous people.”52 As historian Jonathan Bell explains, Whitaker and Baxter perfected a strategy that portrayed Knight “as representative of all of California,” and anyone who opposed him as “an extremist or someone alien to the political culture of the state.”53

By the 1940s, Whitaker and Baxter were well-known figures in California politics, offering an array of services to various causes and candidates. Their work on campaigns and ballot initiatives paid handsomely in fees, particularly from clients in the business community eager to preserve their power and influence in the Golden State. For their part, Whitaker and Baxter sold their services well, combining a proficiency with words and symbols and a sophisticated understanding of the press to become a highly sought after source of expertise and advice. Within a decade of joining forces, Whitaker and Baxter developed a successful model of professional campaign management that transformed their clients’ money into a powerful form of political influence.

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