Jill Lepore deserves a Laurel for her engrossing tale of how political communications came to be so toxic. In “The Lie Factory,” Lepore describes the work of the firm Campaigns, Inc., founded in 1933 by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, and outlines the antecedents for the slash-and-burn, repeat-the-lies, cutthroat campaigning so evident in current political races. “No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting,” she writes.
Whitaker and Baxter invented modern political consulting in the course of defeating Upton Sinclair, the socialist and author of The Jungle, when he ran for governor of California; sprucing up the image of Earl Warren when he was a right wing candidate for governor, also in California; teaching Ike how to use TV as a weapon; and guiding the American Medical Association (AMA) in its fateful campaign that has for six decades prevented America from having a national health system. “Socialized medicine” is what the PR duo called it. Sound familiar?
I knew Whitaker and Baxter had coined the term “socialized medicine” to help their million-dollar client, the AMA, but Lepore’s piece connected a lot of dots for me, and explained why so many of the twenty-something students I’ve taught use the term and have feelings about the concept even through they clearly were not around in the late 1940s when Whitaker and Baxter used it to defeat Harry Truman’s plan for national health insurance. Their grandparents were, and the purported evils of a government-managed plan have been handed down for generations. Lepore wrote “They turned the President’s sensible, popular, and urgently needed legislative reform into a bogeyman so scary that, even today, millions of Americans are still scared.” Their success has made it impossible to discuss health reform except in the narrowest of terms.
The bogeyman surfaced this summer in the Massachusetts Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown. Warren co-authored a chapter in a health policy book a few years ago advocating “universal, single-payer healthcare.” When a cable TV anchor asked her about that, Warren ran for the hills. “No,” she did not support single payer, Warren told him.
Before they destroyed Truman’s plan, Whitaker and Baxter cut their teeth defeating Earl Warren’s compulsory, comprehensive health insurance proposal for all Californians. The California Medical Association paid them an annual fee of $25,000, and they ignited a war, with the help of newspaper editors and pamphlets that scared the public about the evils of “politically-controlled medicine.” Says Lepore: “Whitaker and Baxter took a piece of legislation that most people liked and taught them to hate it.” To this day, the California Medical Association has lobbied fiercely against bills for single-payer health insurance, which have passed the legislature several times but never got a governor’s signature and became law.
In 1948, Truman proposed a health insurance scheme similar to Warren’s in his State of the Union address. Soon after, the AMA paid Whitaker and Baxter a $100,000 retainer with an annual budget of more than $1 million—a $956,000 retainer and a budget of some $9.5 million in today’s dollars—for a campaign “to arouse and alert the American people in every walk of life until it generates a great public crusade and a fundamental fight for freedom.” Whitaker and Baxter carried their fight to every nook and cranny of America—to doctors; to doctors’ wives, who held parties to explain the evils of socialized medicine; to small town pharmacists; to journalists and newspapers—and to Washington where they persuaded members of Congress to let them read constituents’ mail. When they began their attack, mail was running four and a half to one in favor of Truman’s plan. Nine months later it was running four to one against.
Lepore dug into the California State Archives and unearthed a document that explains some of the roots of what became our health system today. The goal of Campaign, Inc. was to put a “permanent stop to the agitation for socialized medicine in this country,” and one way of doing that was “simulating the growth of voluntary health insurance systems to take the economic shock out of illness.” For several reasons, private insurance indeed grew, with a handful of giant companies controlling the health insurance market in the US. Whether in the long run private insurance will replace the social insurance model that is Medicare, which is a key election issue with footprints you can trace back to Whitaker and Baxter.