ANALYSIS: Political PR - The origin of playing dirty campaign tricks - The Power of PR/Beginning in the 1930s, two PR pros laid the foundation for the no-holds-barred political campaigns that are standard today. Karen Miller takes a look back

Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent candidate in the 1972 presidential election, was well ahead in the polls when - inexplicably it seemed - his reelection organization began to indulge in unethical and criminal behavior that would eventually lead to the president’s resignation in 1974. Among other things, Nixon’s cronies placed spies in rivals’ headquarters to steal campaign documents, put wiretaps on opponents’ telephones, and broke into the Democratic party’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent candidate in the 1972 presidential election, was well ahead in the polls when - inexplicably it seemed - his reelection organization began to indulge in unethical and criminal behavior that would eventually lead to the president’s resignation in 1974. Among other things, Nixon’s cronies placed spies in rivals’ headquarters to steal campaign documents, put wiretaps on opponents’ telephones, and broke into the Democratic party’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent candidate in the 1972 presidential

election, was well ahead in the polls when - inexplicably it seemed -

his reelection organization began to indulge in unethical and criminal

behavior that would eventually lead to the president’s resignation in

1974. Among other things, Nixon’s cronies placed spies in rivals’

headquarters to steal campaign documents, put wiretaps on opponents’

telephones, and broke into the Democratic party’s headquarters in the

Watergate Hotel.



But these actions were not inexplicable. Nixon’s campaign was the

apotheosis of a new type of political campaigning spawned by two PR

pioneers in California during the 1930s.



The story begins in 1933, when Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter formed a

partnership, Campaigns, Inc., the first political PR agency in the

United States (the couple married in 1938). It was a full-service firm

that managed campaigns from beginning to end, rather than simply

offering publicity assistance.



The couple’s campaigns were based on simple premises: more Americans

like corn than caviar; the best campaign is an attack; invent an enemy

and warn voters against him; issues must be few and clear; and confront

the voters with an emotional decision.



Creating a common enemy



Nixon biographer Roger Morris calls Whitaker and Baxter the ’California

equivalent of a powerful political machine,’ because they replaced the

smoke-filled room with ’media politics’ - simple messages aimed directly

at voters through the mass media.



The 1934 California governor’s race typified their work. Campaigns, Inc.

worked only for Republicans, but it declined to work for Frank Merriam,

the GOP candidate. Greg Mitchell, whose book The Campaign of the Century

analyzes the race, says that Clem Whitaker ’thought Merriam was an

incompetent fool.’



But Whitaker and Baxter didn’t want to see the election of Upton

Sinclair, either; they opposed his ’End Poverty in California’ (EPIC)

platform, so they agreed to work for the California League Against

Sinclairism (CLAS), a Republican front group.



Whitaker and Baxter spent three days reading everything Sinclair had

ever written, pulling out controversial quotes such as one that

suggested that every religion was ’a mighty fortress of graft.’



Sinclair’s words came back to haunt him. Whitaker and Baxter hired an

artist to prepare cartoons, a visual illustration of what they called

the ’blot of Sinclairism.’ For instance, a picture of a bride and groom

was defiled with an ink blot and a quote equating marriage with

prostitution.



Such cartoons quickly became fodder for newspapers. The PR agents

learned that by placing ads in small weekly papers, they could easily

convince copy-starved editors to run cartoons as well as editorials.



A typical packet of materials sent to newspapers included a story about

the recent influx of the unemployed (presumably to take advantage of the

welfare benefits EPIC would bring), an editorial revealing Sinclair as a

free-love advocate and a statement by a top Democrat declaring that

Sinclair suffered from hallucinations.



The result of this smear campaign was that Merriam, a candidate no one

really liked, beat Sinclair, even though 24 other EPIC candidates won

seats in the state assembly.



Watching and learning was a young Los Angeles attorney, Murray

Chotiner.



He was one of the first to advocate a bipartisan strategy for

Merriam.



He opened his own political PR firm during the 1940s and began working

for local Republican groups, using many of Whitaker and Baxter’s

principles.



Chotiner was hired by 12th District Republicans to advise Nixon on his

first race, for Congress in 1946. Just back from World War II service in

the Navy, Nixon had decided to try his hand at state politics.



Nixon’s opponent, Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, was a formidable

foe. He had been elected five times with increasing majorities, was

named the ’best Congressman west of the Mississippi’ by the Washington

press corps, and, as a member of the House Un-American Activities

Committee, had sponsored the Voorhis Act, an anti-communism law which

required the registration of foreign agents.



Chotiner’s approach to political campaigns both resonated with Nixon and

prodded him forward. Nixon’s campaign, consisting mostly of leaflets,

posters and coffee klatches, had stalled, and Chotiner urged him to put

more ’meat’ into it. When an informant gave Chotiner a copy of a

National Citizen’s Political Action Committee memorandum showing that

the labor group intended to endorse Nixon’s opponent, the Republicans

were energized by the idea that they could claim there were ties between

Voorhis and a Communist organization.



Of course, Nixon’s attacks failed to explain that the PAC was not the

same as the Congress of Industrial Organizations PAC, which did have

Communist members; moreover, the endorsement was never actually

made.



Nixon expanded on the attack during a debate by insinuating that Voorhis

was a Communist sympathizer. Voorhis was so stunned by Nixon’s gall that

he was unable to respond effectively. ’It was essential always to be on

the attack,’ Chotiner later said. And Nixon agreed. Nixon employees made

anonymous phone calls to voters, saying that Voorhis was a Communist and

then quickly hanging up.



In a stunning upset, Nixon won the election, 65,586 votes to 49,994.



The creep emerges



Chotiner took increasingly active roles in Nixon’s campaigns, including

his presidential bids in 1960, 1968 and 1972. In fact, Pat Nixon was

openly jealous of her husband’s relationship with Chotiner; their

daughter, Julie, later reported that Nixon decided Chotiner’s advice was

more important than his wife’s objections, so the PR man became ’a

nonsubject.’



Nixon’s actions in 1972 are perfectly understandable in the context of

Whitaker and Baxter’s media politics. He formed a separate organization,

the Committee to Re-elect the President (with its infamous acronym

CREEP), rather than relying solely on the Republican party, thus paying

heed to Whitaker and Baxter’s strategy to divide campaign from

party.



Chotiner’s approach of ’running scared’ fueled Nixon’s insecurities and

drove him to dirty tricks, even when polls showed he was well ahead of

the opposition. The stakes were higher, so the risks he took were

bigger, the tricks dirtier. He went from anonymous phone calls in 1946

to spying and break-ins in 1972. But the philosophy was the same: create

an enemy, attack, always behave as if you are behind in the polls.



Whitaker and Baxter would have disapproved of both the criminal nature

and the stupidity of Nixon’s 1972 campaign tactics. But the fact remains

that in creating media politics, they had also tutored Murray Chotiner

and Richard Nixon.



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