He made up stories to smear the opposition and barely backpedaled when called out—Charlie Michelson perfected the nasty art of political mud-slinging.
It’s still hard to believe that Americans would fall for such a demagogic smear campaign: The false corruption charges, clouding past actions in shadowy tales of double-dealing. The “birther” attempts to question the president’s very eligibility. And the recruiting of a hack reporter to devise the smears, then spread them over the new media he mastered. You wonder about this nominee from one of our great political parties: where is any sense of shame, any nobility, any limits?
Eight decades ago, fourteen years before Donald Trump’s birth, Franklin Roosevelt’s winning presidential campaign in 1932 stirred such disgust. When the defeated incumbent, Herbert Hoover, recalled the campaign, he accused FDR of ruining American politics with irresponsible techniques, ghostwritten speeches, and smear tactics. Many voters later wrote Hoover, apologizing for believing the lies. And until his death, Hoover snubbed the man he most blamed for that hatchet job, FDR’s smearer in chief, ghostwriter, and birth coach to the atmosphere that fed 1932’s version of the birther rumor, Charles Michelson.
Charlie Michelson was a cutthroat newspaperman back when reporters eschewed fancy pants titles like “journalist.” They delighted in being troublemakers, often making up news while reporting it.
Born in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1869, this tough frontier kid ran away from home when he was 13, then stumbled into the newspaper biz seeking adventure. He started feeding wild copy to William Randolph Hearst’s sensationalist San Francisco Examiner. Covering the police beat, Michelson publicized “a thousand interesting incidents, some of which really happened.”
The ultimate Yellow Journalist, Michelson ended up in Cuba, where Hearst deployed his craziest reporters to fan anti-Spanish sentiment, to ignite a Splendid Little War. Michelson tasted the high stakes of what became the 1898 Spanish-American war when he was imprisoned for over a week as a spy. Saved by backroom intervention, he continued embroidering the truth with his typewriter. After a lucrative stint as a Hollywood screenwriter, he became the New York World’s Washington bureau chief in 1920, covering the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover presidencies with the same mischievous flair.
In 1929, Michelson joined the other side, to start making history not just observe it — and lured by a $20,000 salary as part of the Democrats’ unprecedented million dollar effort to unseat the third Republican president in a row, Herbert Hoover. Michelson became the Democratic National Committee’s first full-time publicity director.
Michelson professionalized the operation while updating the American political tradition of demonizing your opponent colorfully, creatively. Treating Herbert Hoover, a national hero, as a political disgrace, Michelson blasted “Hoovervilles,” Michelson’s word for the shantytowns sheltering the newly homeless. Michelson bombarded reporters with press releases – often written for others back when ghosting was disreputable. These gems were crafted to grab an editor’s attention. Michelson used radio effectively, with punchy jingles that lured listeners. And, anticipating Donald Trump’s drive-by campaign style, Michelson delivered the rare backpedal when caught in a particularly outrageous lie “in fine print,” for as many to miss as possible.
Americans learned that Hoover was un-American, having lived abroad for decades; that he caused the Great Depression; that he prospered from illegal payoffs; that he didn’t care about the little guy’s misery; and that he had ordered soldiers to fire on their own former comrades, the Bonus Marchers.
Of course, it wasn’t just Michelson. The Great Crash of 1929 left millions terrified and furious. Some authors even cruder than Michelson, published six “Smear Books” between 1930 and 1932 libeling the stiff, upstanding, earnest Hoover as a corrupt pol. John M. Hamill’s Hoover’s Millions and How He Made Them, grudgingly acknowledged that the Iowa-born Hoover was “entitled to call himself a citizen of the United States.” But this vicious bestseller claimed Hoover “had never voted or paid taxes,” and registered a Deed of Trust in China as a British subject. Hamill accused Hoover of “robbery with a capital R” in his business dealings, a kind of “burglary behind a mask.” Robert S. Allen in Why Hoover Faces Defeat attacked Hoover’s “abysmal incompetence, his pettiness and deviousness in personal relations, his shocking callousness to tragic suffering among millions of his countrymen.…” The fetid atmosphere Michelson created spawned and spread these libels.
The campaign infuriated Hoover. Twenty years later, in 1952, Collier’s magazine ran an excerpt from Hoover’s memoirs recalling that painful campaign. Hoover called the personal attacks unnecessary and unprecedented. “Roosevelt’s campaign has historical importance because of the new techniques he introduced, which have affected all campaigns since,” Hoover wrote. “They mostly revolved around the abandonment of many facts in a huge number of speeches ghostwritten by irresponsible men.”
Hoover was particularly bitter that the campaigning bile culminated three years of abuse. The Democrats’ “strategy from the time of my election was to keep up a campaign of personal destruction of myself.” This obstructionism, he said, “was in some ways new in American life.”
Hoover resented Roosevelt as a dishonest collectivist sullying American politics and endangering the American way of life. Hoover and many Republicans, however, particularly detested Michelson. One cartoon showed a Senator’s face as merely a mask. Behind the mask lurked Michelson, brandishing a devil’s pitchfork poking an alarmed Republican elephant.
In 1952, Hoover fed the dark tale: “Michelson came out of lifelong service” in “the smear department of the Hearst press… He was that professional type of publicity man with no principles of his own.”
Taking professional pride in his work, Michelson was miffed by the personal hostility. It bothered Michelson that in 1940, Life magazine attributed Democratic sneers about the Republican nominee Wendell Willkie’s German ancestry to Michelson’s instinct to smear. Running a photo of Michelson, accusing Democrats of “Dipping deep in the mud,” Life charged: “no egg was too rotten for the mudwumps.”
In his 1944 book The Ghost Talks, Michelson took credit for shaping history, as autobiographers do, but tried neutralizing the hostility toward him. Calling himself a “political technician,” he insisted “I was merely the press agent.” He dismissed the hype around the big 1932 “conspiracy” to smear Hoover as being like “many other picturesque myths … purely imaginary.” Still, he did mention that now, Hoover “never … recognized my presence” whenever they crossed paths.
Reflecting on his journalistic career, Michelson admitted, “Denunciations make good reading, eulogy does not.” More profoundly, more than a decade as the ultimate political insider and dirty trickster gave him some sober insights into American politics. Watching Franklin Roosevelt, he saw “the dim line between self-service and public service.” And struck by the quintessentially American hysteria that has voters attributing to presidents — and candidates — “qualifications extreme in every direction,” Michelson explained: “The difficulty appears to be rooted in our deification of the chief executive, whether it be celestial or satanic.”
Historians’ reassurance that American campaigns are often brutal and that our recurring sense of innocence has us deeming each ugly round as unprecedented, doesn’t make the 2016 campaign any less toxic. Michelson’s career demonstrates the ever-escalating arms race that is American political combat. And Hoover׳s hurt shows that Michelson was right – beyond the bluster, mere mortals are trying to do an impossible job further complicated by supersized expectations and angers.
“Ours is the government that suits us,” Michelson concludes. Sometimes that’s a reassuring compliment. In 2016, as in 1932, it’s a devastating indictment.