The Man Who Went Full Trump for FDR

tags: FDR, election 2016, Trump, Charlie Michelson

Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

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. ...

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