The Lie Factory - How Politics Became a Business
Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter were a husband-and-wife team that started Whitaker & Baxter Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm in the United States. Based in California, the firm worked on a variety of political issues, mostly for the Republican Party.
Clem Whitaker was a newspaper reporter and lobbyist. Leone Baxter had been a reporter for The Oregonian and by 1933, the manager of Redding's Chamber of Commerce. They were married in 1938.
Origin of the firm
In response to the Central Valley Project Act of 1933, lawyer Sheridan Downey was organizing a campaign to defeat a referendum about the project; Downey invited Whitaker and Baxter to work on the effort which led to the creation of their campaign management firm. That year they began operating as Campaigns Inc. (incorporated in 1950 as Whitaker & Baxter Campaigns, Inc.)
In addition to managing campaigns for candidates and ballot measures, the company wrote editorials for newspapers and distributing putatively educational ads through his wire service, the California Features Service. They also handled public relations and served as an advertising agency.
Generally, Whitaker and Baxter worked on political and policy questions, though they also aided firms with corporate public relations, such as improving the image of cottonseed oil or imitation ice cream. Their political clientele was mostly Republicans of the 1940s and 1950s, including Governor Earl Warren, Governor Goodwin Knight, and Dwight Eisenhower's California Presidential campaign. Though Whitaker and Baxter ostensibly helped all those who approached their firm, in practice they were committed to small-government conservatism and forestalling or rolling back the New Deal. One of their most influential campaigns was helping the American Medical Association fight off the national health insurance plans of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Though unmentioned in the film, much of the archival anti-National health care propaganda seen in Michael Moore's Sicko, including Ronald Reagan's phonograph speech on how national health care is the first step towards socialism, was produced in 1949 under the direction of Whitaker and Baxter.
Unlike the parties of the day, Whitaker and Baxter could and insisted on emphasizing pace, control, and rhythm in a campaign. They did not trust enthusiastic local volunteers to run an effective campaign, and thus made judgments for themselves on how to allocate resources, relying also on their employed Field Men to check up on district offices.
They were not above dirty tricks, as seen in their work for the 1934 re-election campaign of Governor Frank Merriam in his push to defeat social reformer Upton Sinclair. The major thrust of their work was a smear campaign against Sinclair, alleging in newspaper stories that he seduced young girls, and placing film reels that depicted Sinclair's supporters as socialist pro-Soviets.
Whitaker and Baxter also pioneered extensive scripting and packaging of a campaign message so as to penetrate to voters who generally would not be paying attention. This may have led to contemporary complaints about the perceived emptiness of modern campaigns. They justified their overly scripted work as such:
"The average American doesn't want to be educated, he doesn't want to improve his mind, he doesn't even want to work consciously at being a good citizen. But every American likes to be entertained. He likes the movies, he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades. So, if you can't put on a fight, put on a show.”
Their strategy for successful campaigns included these rules: "Never lobby; woo voters instead. Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn't have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn't have an opponent, invent one. Every campaign needs a theme. Invent one. Keep it simple. Never explain anything. Say the same thing over and over again. Fan flames. Never shy from controversy."
From the New Yorker:
Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. “Every voter, a consumer” was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc. Political management is now a diversified, multibillion-dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from this year’s Presidential race to the campaigns of the candidates for your local school committee. (Campaigns, now, never end. And consultants not only run campaigns; they govern.) But for years Whitaker and Baxter had no competition, which is one reason that, between 1933 and 1955, they won seventy out of seventy-five campaigns. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California, and of the country. Campaigns, Inc., is shaping American politics still...
Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead. “Our conception of practical politics is that if you have a sound enough case to convince the folks back home, you don’t have to buttonhole the Senator,” Baxter explained. Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues...
Never underestimate the opposition. The first thing Whitaker and Baxter always did, when they took on a campaign, was to “hibernate” for a week, to write a Plan of Campaign. Then they wrote an Opposition Plan of Campaign, to anticipate the moves made against them. Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good. (“For Jimmy and me, vote ‘yes’ on 3.”) Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support.” Say the same thing over and over again. “We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,” Whitaker said. Subtlety is your enemy. “Words that lean on the mind are no good,” according to Baxter. “They must dent it.” Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”
Fan flames. “We need more partisanship in this country,” Whitaker said. Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,” Whitaker advised. “But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.” You can put on a fight (“he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled”), or you can put on a show (“he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades”): “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”
Winner takes all. “If you launch a campaign for a new car, your client doesn’t expect you to lead the field necessarily in the first year, or even the tenth year,” Whitaker once said. “But in politics, they don’t pay off for PLACE OR SHOW! You have to win, if you want to stay in business.”