AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here are some other guidelines for connecting with voters: Never explain anything. Subtlety is your enemy. Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming is good. And, pretend you are the voice of the people. These maxims may sound like fundamentals of today's political campaigns but they were the ideas of the country's first political consultants, Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker. They got their start in California in the 1930s.
Harvard history professor Jill Lepore writes about them in the latest New Yorker magazine. The article is called "The Lie Factory."
JILL LEPORE: What they were doing really was entirely new. I always think of if you were casting them in a movie like those 1930s screwball comedies, it would be Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn. Whitaker has this kind of gangly, incredibly friendly and warm newspaper man, who could write like a demon. And Baxter was this elegant and quiet, but very, very thoughtful and sharp political thinker, really.
CORNISH: Their techniques, says Jill LePore, included massive ad campaigns, billboards across the country. And this...
LEPORE: They also ran a feature service, a newspaper feature service. And they sent out these political clip sheets every week. At the time, there were a lot of newspapers in California; tiny little rural papers that had very little copy. And this free copy would arrive...
LEPORE: ...in their news offices every week from the California Feature Service and it seemed very authoritative. But really, they were just press releases on the part of candidates or political issues that Campaigns Inc. was being paid to advocate for.
So they're just incredibly effective and they developed almost overnight, this set of tools that now seem to us, you know, so obvious. They were brand-new in the 1930s.
CORNISH: And they also started out working for businesses. And while you've talked here about their work sort of being connected to advertising, I also saw the link there to modern lobbying.
LEPORE: Yeah, it's not until the 1950s that there's anyone else in this business. And at that point, the federal government actually gets concerned, like, what are these people? Who are Whitaker and Baxter? They've run a number of campaigns by then and they'd become the source - the object of some scrutiny. And they conduct interviews with Whitaker and Baxter. And they say, like, what do you do? Are you lobbyists or not?
And Whitaker and Baxter always said - and I think they meant this very sincerely, they're actually very straight - they called it to they were doing grassroots crusading. They thought that if you were a lobbyist, Baxter said you have to go buttonhole a senator. That's useless, she thought, because that only works once. You have to go back and do that for every issue in every year, again and again and again.
If you can go straight to the minds of the people, if you could get your message on the radio in their kitchen, you could bypass legislators and go right to the people and convince them of your position, or persuade them to vote for your candidate. So they had this kind of weird notion...
LEPORE: ...and people called him on this all the time, that this is grassroots organizing. And therefore, it was not going to be regulated the way lobbyists are regulated. And it's one reason why political consulting so much flies beneath the radar even now, when we know there are political consultants and they are celebrities, and we're expected to adore them and be fascinated by their lives.
That wasn't the case in the 1930s. These people were very much behind the scenes. But still, they were people who had this vast amount of political power and no one ever elected them.
CORNISH: So the article is called "The Lie Factory..."
CORNISH: ...which seems, you know, pretty strident. I mean, did they believe in what they were doing? I mean, they didn't think they were lying. They thought they were packaging something to convince the public.
LEPORE: Well, they didn't think they were lying but they did have regrets about some of the things that they had done, where they thought that the means maybe were worth the end, but maybe just barely. It's actually Upton Sinclair who calls this kind of political campaigning The Lie Factory. Sinclair's gubernatorial bid in 1934 is one of Campaigns Inc.'s first campaigns. And Whitaker and Baxter managed to ruin him, not only defeat his gubernatorial bid, but also attack him personally.
They lock themselves in a room for a weekend and they read everything that he's ever wrote. And then they take out these little columns in the Los Angeles Times every day for, you know, weeks before the election. And what they do is that they've taken little snippets of text, mostly from novels that Sinclair has written, things that fictional characters have said that would be concerning. And then they attribute them to Upton Sinclair. So they...
CORNISH: So oppositional research, essentially...
LEPORE: Oppositional research, that's what they started. So he wrote a pamphlet about this being done to him and it was called "The Lie Factory Starts." It was about just what it means editorially for people to do this kind of work. And in a way, it's interesting that Whitaker and Baxter come from the world of journalism because what they really are doing is redefining a set of editorial standards.
You wouldn't quote a fictional character in a novel and attribute that quote to the author of the novel, as if it was a political statement, right? You couldn't do that. That kind of chicanery is done all the time now in modern politics. But Whitaker and Baxter are the people who invent that.
CORNISH: Jill, you make a broad historical statement in this New Yorker article. At one point you write: No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting. I mean, do you really believe that, have they had such a huge impact?
LEPORE: Yeah, I do believe that. Before political consultants, there were party bosses who ran party machines and made a lot of money by doing so. Then there was reform, progressive era reform to try to reign in the power that party boss' had. These are people we didn't elect and they're just in this for the money. Political consultants replaced that very slowly, but very effectively, ultimately. And there hasn't been the same kind of scrutiny into their activities or the same public discussion about what it means for democracy that there's a whole group of people, it's a multi-billion dollar industry of people, who are running our political system.
CORNISH: Jill Lepore, thank you so much for talking with us.
LEPORE: Thank you.
CORNISH: Jill Lapore's article in the New Yorker is called, "The Lie Factory." She's also the author of the book, "The Story of America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.