When an Author Runs for Office
As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times contemplates a race for governor, examples set by Upton Sinclair, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer do not bode well. H.L. Mencken, Ezra Pound, Theodore Dreiser and Dorothy Parker all weigh in….
The news out of Oregon today: resident, popular author, and longtime New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is seriously contemplating a race for governor of his state. Politico and the Times itself have already covered this, and he has even solicited feedback from voters via Twitter.
This may not end well. The track record for authors running for office is not very heartening — although nowadays almost every prominent national politician, when running for or after leaving office, simply must write a memoir or three, which often rocket to near the top of the bestseller list.
Many years ago I wrote a lengthy piece on this subject for the The New York Times Book Review, which started on its front page then kicked inside. My award-winning book, The Campaign of the Century, on the most notable such race ever — Upton Sinclair’s nearly successful “End Poverty” crusade in California in 1934 — had recently been published. (It was later named by the Wall St. Journal as one of the five best books ever on an election campaign.) Eventually it would inspire a key plot point in David Fincher’s Mank, which I also wrote about not long ago for the Times.
Here is my earlier essay for the Times, barely revised and cut a bit.
“I’d like to see how a man looks who’s given up his typewriter for the microphone,” John Dos Passos wrote Upton Sinclair on Oct. 1, 1934. Sinclair was running for governor of California, and Dos Passos, who was in Hollywood completing a screenplay for Josef von Sternberg, wanted to visit his old friend in Pasadena and play anthropologist for an afternoon.
The author in American politics is a rare species indeed, perhaps even an endangered one. Yet writing well and running for office are not necessarily incompatible. One must acknowledge Jefferson and Lincoln and Grant, for example. Mario Cuomo is an elegant diarist. Still, one does not think of these men as authors first. And Ted Sorensen did ghost write most of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Literary figures in the United States generally are content to criticize the political process from outside the ring.
Perhaps the most recent memorable exception is Norman Mailer’s race for Mayor of New York in 1969 — a blustery effort that ended in resounding defeat. His running mate, the columnist Jimmy Breslin, who was seeking the post of City Council President, also lost.
The living author most frequently linked to electoral politics is Gore Vidal. Grandson of a senator from Tennessee, Vidal campaigned unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in New York in 1960 and for the United States Senate in California in 1982. Vidal has threatened to run on other occasions. In a wonderful example of art fulfilling ambition, he plays a pompous Senator in Tim Robbins’s terrific film Bob Roberts.
If wealthy businessmen like Ross Perot can aspire to the Presidency — and an actor like Ronald Reagan actually achieve it — why not a celebrated author? For an answer, one must examine what happened to Upton Sinclair in 1934, when he waged the most remarkable campaign ever conducted by an author, only to be “licked . . . by his own typewriter,” as the newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler put it.
Sinclair is best remembered today for a single novel, The Jungle (1906), an account of horrors in the Chicago meatpacking industry. More often than not he is confused, as he was during his lifetime, with a more accomplished novelist, Sinclair Lewis. Sinclair may not have been a literary stylist, but as one of the country’s foremost socialists he was, according to H. L. Mencken, the most widely translated American author abroad. Practically alone among the writers of his generation, Sinclair, as Edmund Wilson observed, “put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them.”
No American writer converted more young people to socialism. “Upton Sinclair first got to me when I was 14 or so,” Kurt Vonnegut remembered. At about the same age, Norman Mailer read Sinclair’s novel Boston (an exploration of the Sacco-Vanzetti case) and “for better or worse,” he later reported, “it moved me to the left.” Saul Bellow also remembered that Sinclair’s books made a profound impression on him in his youth, even though he understood right from the start that the author was “something of a crank — one of the grand American cranks who enriched our lives.”
Like Norman Mailer, Upton Sinclair was often in the news for reasons that had little to do with writing: getting arrested, financing films or striving for office. Twice he ran for Governor of California on the Socialist Party line and barely made a ripple. Then, in the autumn of 1933, at the age of 54, he decided to seek the governorship again, this time as a Democrat. Despite the coming of the New Deal, the Great Depression was deepening in California; Sinclair felt he had a chance to win. “You have written enough,” he later remembered saying to himself. “What the world needs is a deed.”
First, he wrote one more book, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty. In this fantasy, a certain well-known muckraker, Upton Sinclair, proposes a 10-point program to “End Poverty in California” (EPIC). The plan inspires a mass movement that carries him to victory in the 1934 Governor’s race. After a few months of hard work, Governor Sinclair succeeds in abolishing poverty by soaking the rich and putting the unemployed to work on foreclosed farms and in abandoned factories. Then he retires, returns to Pasadena and picks up his pen again.
When Sinclair announced his candidacy for real, he observed that “this is the first time a historian has set out to make his history true.” And, to a point, he succeeded: I, Governor sold tens of thousands of copies and the most powerful social movement in California’s history, known as the EPIC crusade, rallied to his cause. “California’s a great place right now,” John Dos Passos informed Malcolm Cowley. “You can look out the window and watch the profit system crumble.” On Aug. 29, 1934, Sinclair swept the Democratic primary in a landslide, and most political pundits predicted that he would easily brush aside his lackluster Republican opponent, Gov. Frank F. Merriam, in November.
“I cannot tell you how unreal the world of books seems to me now,” Sinclair told Floyd Dell, his biographer. “I doubt if I ever write any more books!” A screenwriter named Frank Scully wrote an article for Esquire called “Author! Author! for Governor,” observing that it was quite a novelty to have a political leader who not only could read and write, “but knows what the country needs, and can even spell it!”
Many of Sinclair’s literary friends on the left, including Archibald MacLeish and Dorothy Parker, supported him passionately. Heywood Broun, who in 1930 had run for Congress as a Socialist in Manhattan — finishing a poor third — wrote a column for the New York World-Telegram mocking the Los Angeles Times for equating Sinclair’s supporters with maggots and termites.
Another Sinclair booster, Theodore Dreiser, had unresolved electoral ambitions of his own. Since achieving enormous popularity with his novel An American Tragedy in 1925, he had drifted toward the Communist Party and briefly considered running for Governor of New York. Responding to Sinclair’s triumph in California, Dreiser wrote a lengthy piece for Esquire calling EPIC “the most impressive political phenomenon America has yet produced.”
Like Dreiser, Lincoln Steffens was a fellow traveler who supported Sinclair from the left. He also had been urged to run for office in California in 1934 — those were the days for writers! — either on the Communist Party line (for Governor) or as an EPIC candidate (for United States Senator). But Steffens, who lived in Carmel, was ill.
From Rapallo, Italy, Ezra Pound weighed in with yet another endorsement. “Congrats on nomination,” Pound wrote Sinclair. “Now beat the bank buzzards and get elected.” Pound was busy promoting Mussolini, writing essays with titles like “ABC of Economics” and calling Fascist Italy “freer than anywhere else in the Occident.” Pound also wished to play a role in American politics. He asked Ernest Hemingway if he knew a way he could make money writing campaign songs for political candidates; twice he wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt, offering economic advice to spur the “Nude Eel.”
Like nearly everyone, Pound admired Sinclair’s fighting spirit, but he considered him a “polymaniac” with too many “fixations.” He urged Sinclair to “git on with gettin elected,” but called the candidate “a bloody ass” for not renouncing “doles and relief.”
H. L. Mencken also felt ambivalent. Sinclair was a puritan, a champion of the common man; Mencken was the free spirit who had coined the expression “the booboisie.” Mencken had once called Sinclair an “incurable romantic, wholesale believer in the obviously not so. The man delights me constantly. . . . I know of no one in all this vast paradise of credulity who gives a steadier and more heroic credit to the intrinsically preposterous.”
The two writers were irreconcilable, yet they liked and respected each other enormously; they conducted a lively correspondence amounting to more than 150 letters. “I am against you and against the Liberals because I believe you chase butterflies,” Mencken had informed Sinclair a few years earlier, “but I am even more against your enemies.”
By 1934, however, Mencken was often finding common ground with anti-New Deal conservatives. “Sinclair has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century, is at it again in California, and on such a scale that the whole country is attracted by the spectacle,” Mencken commented in The Baltimore Sun. Still, he hoped Sinclair would win in November. “It is always amusing to see a utopian in office,” Mencken observed, “and this one is far bolder, vainer and more credulous than the general.” Sinclair, stung by Mencken’s barbs, replied that his old friend might be “brilliant with words, but just now we need action, and his witticisms do not fill the stomachs of the hungry.”
For a few weeks it appeared that Sinclair might get elected. California Republicans, and the many conservative Democrats who opposed Sinclair, did not know quite how to respond to a grass-roots uprising like EPIC. (The Bush and Clinton forces suffered the same paralysis when Perotmania first emerged last spring.) But the Republican operatives soon conceived a winning strategy. Sinclair had used his fame and skill as an author to launch his campaign. Now Sinclair’s opponents would turn his reckless career as a muckraker against him.
The biblical Job wished that his adversary had written a book. Well, Upton Sinclair had produced not just one but 47 of them! All across California in September 1934, researchers removed dusty Sinclair books from library shelves and combed them for damaging quotations. They discovered that Sinclair had attacked some of the most powerful interests in California: the press, the movie studios, the oil industry, the churches and the bankers. Some of the most alarming excerpts were 20 to 30 years old, but it didn’t matter: it was all grist for the mill.
Now, what would the Republicans do with it? The California Republican Party had grown feeble and its leaders knew that old-style politicking — parades, rallies, canvassing — would not turn the trick. So they had no choice but to invent the political campaign as we know it today. It would be a campaign directed by advertising wizards and political consultants — the much-maligned handlers and spin doctors of modern politics. It would also be the first campaign to feature attack ads on the screen (three movie shorts created by the powerful M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg). Sinclair’s own words figured prominently in all of this.
The advertising pioneer Albert D. Lasker directed his agency, Lord & Thomas, to prepare the most sophisticated direct-mail campaign of its day. Lord & Thomas printed vintage Sinclair quotations on millions of pamphlets targeted at more than two dozen separate audiences, each of which had earned the author’s enmity over the years: Roman Catholics, doctors, graduates of Stanford University, even Boy Scout leaders. (Mormons learned that Sinclair considered them “Latter-Day Grafters,” “weird” and “pathetic.”) Each leaflet was different, but they all carried the same slogan: “Out of His Own Mouth Shall He Be Judged.” Assisted by Hollywood screenwriters like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the agency also created a series of radio dramas that foretold what California would be like under Governor Sinclair: a kind of Siberia with palms.
The Los Angeles Times published a Sinclair extract in a special box on its front page every day. Each quotation highlighted his views on a different subject — bankers (“legalized counterfeiters”), Methodists (“children of hell”), the American Legion (“riot department of the plutocracy”), the Elks (“primitive lowbrows”) or the University of California (“the University of the Black Hand”), among others. Many of the quotations appeared in dozens of other papers, for the press lords were united against EPIC.
Whether they appeared in newspapers, in direct-mail pieces or in movie shorts, the Sinclair excerpts shared several characteristics. The quotations were accurate, generally speaking, but they were heavily edited and wrenched out of context, which often dramatically distorted their meaning (always to the author’s disadvantage, of course). Often the excerpt came from a Sinclair novel, and in many cases the quotation reflected the opinion not of the author but of one of his fictional characters. In this way Sinclair was shown to be a Communist, a terrorist and an advocate of free love.
One widely circulated quotation found Sinclair declaring that while he once had respect for the sanctity of marriage, “as a result of my studies I have it no longer.” The words actually originated with a character in his 1910 novel Love’s Pilgrimage. In fact, Sinclair had been married to the same woman for more than 20 years. In another obscure novel, “100%,” one of Sinclair’s villains refers to disabled war veterans as “a lot of good-for-nothing-soldiers.” The candidate had to take the rap for that, too.
The front-page excerpts had a devastating effect on Sinclair’s candidacy. His friends tried to amuse him by pointing out that they constituted the most radical and interesting material to appear in the Los Angeles Times in years, but he would not be consoled. Reading a particularly incendiary quotation, he would tell himself, “It is impossible that the voters will elect a man who has written that!” Over the radio he urged voters to disregard this trickery. He compared it to putting the words “A little water will wash that out” in a box under the heading SHAKESPEARE JUSTIFIES MURDER.
Exasperated, Sinclair complained, “I don’t know what there is left for them to bring up unless it is the nationalizing of women.” Two days later, the L.A. Times ran a box headlined SINCLAIR ON NATIONALIZING CHILDREN, with a quotation from his book “The Industrial Republic” advocating cooperative day care.
Upton Sinclair even had to answer for the literary ravings of Sinclair Lewis. Preachers across the state railed against him from the pulpit for having written Elmer Gantry.
As election day approached, Heywood Broun called the California campaign the dirtiest in American history, likening the Republican smear tactics to those used by Hitler. An executive at M-G-M told Dorothy Parker, who was then a writer at the studio, “You’re cutting your own throat,” when she resisted studio pressure to repudiate Sinclair. “I doubt if that’s important,” she replied, “or anyway not as important as this election.”
On election eve, Sinclair wearily confessed to reporters: “I talk too much. . . . I write too much, too.” A few hours later, voters confirmed his fears. Upton Sinclair drew almost 900,000 votes, the greatest total for any Democrat in the state’s history, but lost to his Republican opponent by more than 200,000. The following day, he apologized to his supporters; any Democratic candidate not burdened with the weight of a million words would have won, he insisted.
Yet it was Sinclair’s reputation as an author, along with his imaginative I, Governor, that made the campaign possible in the first place. And the effort was not in vain: more than two dozen EPIC candidates had been elected to the state legislature, and a liberal Democratic Party would finally take root in California.
What does an author who runs for office do after a setback at the polls? He seeks vindication in print, of course. Sinclair immediately wrote a book entitled I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. Some of the very newspapers that had savaged him during the campaign paid him a considerable sum of money for first serial rights.
H. L. Mencken identified the chief obstacle facing an outspoken author who runs for office when he advised Sinclair that no one in American history “has denounced more different people than you have, or in more violent terms, and yet no man that I can recall complains more bitterly when he happens to be hit.”
Why don’t more authors run for office? Recognition that they might trip on their own paper trail is certainly a consideration. If Gore Vidal were serious about running again, he surely would not have written Live From Golgotha.
But it is also a matter of privilege. Most authors savor their privacy. In I, Candidate, his memoir, Sinclair considered the price of taking part in public life in America. “You have to learn to think on your feet, and to think about several things at once,” he advised. “You speak knowing that if you make a single mistake, you have lost your cause, and the hopes of a million people. You have to have a cast iron stomach, or else be wise enough not to eat until the excitement is over. You must go on without knowing that you are exhausted.” Most authors, by contrast, get to mull things over (sometimes forever); they eat and sleep pretty much wherever and whenever they want. They don’t have to speak at all, and the words they write haunt no one but themselves — unless, as Sinclair discovered, they aspire to political prominence.
There’s one more thing: the vision thing. Authors are creative artists, and when they run for office they confront a political system that has “already been invented,” as Gore Vidal observes in his book Screening History. This invariably leads to disillusionment and frustration. Only on paper could Upton Sinclair create his utopia. The “vision thing,” Mr. Vidal explains, “is a hang-up of writers.” We can be grateful that this is more a blessing than a curse. Perhaps that explains why Theodore Dreiser once asked Heywood Broun why he would want to “descend” to Congress.
Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century, one of his twelve books, won the Goldsmith Book Prize and was one of five finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. His most recent book is The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood — and America — Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb. Daily Substack newsletter: https://gregmitchell.substack.com/