The Origins of the Term Socialized Medicine and How Mad Men Sank Our Chance for National Healthcare in 1948

Upton Sinclair, Clem Whitaker, and Orange Juice at the Heart of the History

Back in 2008, the smoke cleared, we wiped our noses, and finally got healthcare reform. Gesundheit!! Well, sort of… With a universal acceptance of a system in dire need of repair, I envisioned congress intelligently fighting it out. As a result, the best of both worlds would create compromise that could not be beholden to any one political ideology or sustainable business model. Oh my God, what was I smoking back then?

We all saw the town hall orchestrated fist fights, Glen Beck tears, and blue dog democrats. What we didn’t see might have been even worse. For instance, there was no visible discussion in regards to restraints for the drug companies or the procedure costs set by the AMA. We did at least see the possibility of an end to anti-trust exemption for the insurance companies.

Either way, I predicted correctly that those things wouldn't make it into the final bill. You know, because that would make perfect sense. Can anyone say Capitalism?

The Health Insurance companies certainly can. But not the kind that would gesticulate serious debate from those sleeping their way through the latest filibuster on. Of course, this isn't news to anyone who hasn't been stocking up their Canadian prescriptions of medical marijuana since change came to America in living color.

Medical History Lesson Begins

Still, memory loss is a national epidemic, and understanding the massive head start any reform faces, will hopefully give pause the next time we unanimously agree on something. In this case, the deception begins with a phrase that we know all too well.

Socialized Medicine—it sounds like something that was said off the cuff on Meet the Press as human speech first emerged at the dawn of mankind. Not quite. The term first appeared in 1948. Harry Truman had just lost China and was primed to sign into law a national healthcare plan. The author of the catch phrase was a man named Clem Whitaker, and he's almost as anonymous to Google as he is to us.

In the employ of the AMA, his ascendancy 14 years earlier paved the way for the modern era of political campaigning. Ironically, Whitaker's rise ties to an actual socialist, and America 's most famous one at that. 

Enter Upton Sinclair

In 1934, Upton Sinclair won the Democratic primary in California. With a quarter of the state on the dole, his End Poverty in California (EPIC) program obviously had great appeal. Regardless of whether he could deliver, many considered his victory in the general election a foregone conclusion, according to Greg Mitchell and his 1992 Novel, Campaign of the Century.

So if you think the tepid advances past the 59 vote senatorial sit-in that Obamacare faced unleashed a tidal wave of money, it's not hard to imagine how the prospect of a socialist California mobilized everyone to the right of surviving. Add in that the moment took place at the height of the depression, and you really understand the urgency.

Herbert Hoover’s letter to the Republican incumbent said as much. "I want you to know that I am at your service. It is the most momentous election which California has ever faced.”

Mad Men Join the Fray

But he was only a former president representing a system where power had always emerged from the proverbial smoke filled room. Instead, American politics found a home Madison Avenue. Arthur Schlesinger observed, "advertising men believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor. “

The stage set, one Albert Lasker would be put in charge of the campaign against Sinclair. A "Mad Man" before his time, his more notable historical contribution was to ensure that smoking and drinking would forever be as American as lung cancer and liver disease. The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous and Reach for a Lucky were both his, and he was said to have made more money in advertising than anyone in history, according to Mitchell.

The game was on, and Lasker was not alone. In the early 20th Century, another marketing pioneer named C.C. Teague gained fame with an ad campaign that demonstrated how advertising could misinform today and for the ages. 

Teague turned oranges from a luxury for the rich to an everyman's healthcare necessity by overplaying the link between vitamin C and preventing colds. Out of this, an industry was born, and the Sunkist Corporation gave Teague the credentials to un-package Sinclair from the political mainstream of the moment.

The Moving Image Moves In

But this was California. Hollywood must have been out there in full force waiving their sickles and putting together the numbers for the state's 1st five year plan. From Henry Fonda liberals to Charlie Chaplin Socialists, the SAG sat this one out but that would certainly be the last time.

On the other hand, MGM moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg would have the most to lose, and an innovation we know all too well would dominate. The manipulation of the moving image at their disposal translated into outrageously partisan images, and for the first time, the 30 second short was used to demolish a candidate, says Mitchell.

All told, in the context of the moment, journalist Heywood Broun commented on Sinclair’s deconstruction. "Many campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics, but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced."

Where is Clem Whitaker?

In the larger sense, at the center of this paradigm shift, was our friend Clem Whitaker. Over the next 25 years, as the nation's first political consultant, he would go on to win 90 percent of his campaigns. So any important California initiative usually began and ended with one question. Where is Clem Whitaker?

Coming full circle, the AMA was the one asking, and in just two weeks, Whitaker's handiwork relegated Truman and the initiative to a shallow grave. Of course, never so deep that is doesn't tease its way out every decade or so, but always accompanied with the stacked odds Mr. Whitaker left in his wake.

Maybe we should just give up and dip our tea bags into the cool-aid. After all, it seems a whole lot less painful than giving a damn.

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The Origins of the Term Socialized Medicine and How Mad Men Sank Our Chance for National Healthcare in 1948
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