The healthcare debate has come, gone and been forgotten. That was probably the whole idea in the first place. But the lack of a memorable outcome can be historically tied to a phrase that is never too far behind whenever this generational discussion emerges.
“Socialized medicine” – that bottles it up in a neat little package, but its origins are about as spontaneous as all those angry town hall meetings. It first appeared in 1948, as Harry Truman was primed to sign into law a national healthcare plan.
The author was a man named Clem Whitaker, and he’s almost as anonymous to Google as he is to us. In the employ of the AMA, his ascendancy 14 years earlier paved the way for the manner in which this current debate was framed and marked the beginning of the modern era of political campaigning. Ironically, Whitaker’s rise ties to an actual socialist and America’s most famous one at that.
In 1934, Upton Sinclair won the Democratic primary in California. With a quarter of the state on the dole, his End Poverty in California (EPIC) program obviously had great appeal. Regardless of whether he could deliver on its populist aspirations, many considered his victory in the general election as foregone conclusion, according to Greg Mitchell and his 1992 Novel, “Campaign of the Century.”
So if you think a middle ground public healthcare option has gotten the attention of today’s entrenched interests, it’s not hard to imagine how the prospect of a socialist governor at the height of the depression mobilized everyone to the right of surviving. Herbert Hoover wrote the Republican incumbent, according to Mitchell, “I want you to know that I am at your service. It is the most momentous election which California has ever faced.”
But he was only a former president representing a system where power had always emerged from the proverbial smoke filled room. American politics wound soon find a home on Madison Avenue, observed Arthur Schlesinger, “in which advertising men believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor.”
“The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” and “Reach for a Lucky” – doesn’t sound like much to us now but since these slogans seem so second nature today, it implies that they certainly once had their moment in the sun. “Mad Man” Albert Lasker was behind both and was said to have made more money in advertising than anyone in history, according to Mitchell. He was essentially put in charge of taking on Upton Sinclair.
Tied to Lasker was C.C. Teague. In the early 20th Century, he taught his contemporaries how an ad campaign could successfully misinform today and for the ages. Teague turned oranges from a luxury for the rich to an everyman’s healthcare necessity by overplaying the link between vitamin C and fighting off colds. Out of this, an industry was born and the Sunkist Corporation we know today gave Teague the credentials to un-package Sinclair from the political mainstream of the moment.
This California, though, liberal Hollywood must have been out in full force. Henry Fonda liberals to Charlie Chaplin Socialists would never find themselves left out the discussion again. But at the top, where MGM moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg would have the most to lose, an innovation we know only all too well would dominate.
The manipulation of the moving image at their ready disposal translated into outrageously partisan images, and for the first time, the 30-second short was used to demolish a candidate, says Mitchell.
All told, in the context of the moment, journalist Heywood Broun commented in 1934, “that many campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced.”
In the larger sense, at the center of this paradigm shift, or at least most prominently emerging from this, was our friend Clem Whitaker. Over the next 25 years, as the nation’s first political consultant, he would go on to win 90% of his campaigns and any important California initiative usually began and ended with the question – “Where is Clem Whitaker?”
Coming full circle, for our current purposes, The AMA was the one asking and in just two weeks Whitaker’s handiwork relegated Truman and the initiative to a shallow grave, says Mitchell.
Of course, never so deep that is doesn’t tease its way out every decade or so but always accompanied with the stacked odds Mr. Whitaker left in his wake. But replacing our current system with something nicer will never happen if we spend all our time yelling at each other across town halls and cable TV – especially when we don’t even know the source of our own anger.
Historical references from Greg Mitchell’s 1994 Novel, “Campaign of the Century”