Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


Ham and Eggs and Heinlein

Part 3


    So we're on our own in figuring out what happened during the summer of 1938 in the 59th Assembly District race. Heinlein's political short story, "A Bathroom of Her Own," mentions such dirty tricks as having motor oil dumped on an edition of political flyers before they could be distributed; the protagonist's own workers strike back by having bums reeking of garlic distribute flyers favoring the opposition, and by obscuring the windshields of parked cars with the opponent's stickers. (The Mitchell book cites the trick of hiring bums as one used against Sinclair in 1934 -- see p. 574.)

    Heinlein did not take advantage of his right to cross-file against Lyon, as Lyon did against him and Yorty did against his opponent. In Take Back Your Government! he gives it as a matter of principle: "Some states [...] are so lax that it is possible in such a state for a man to be registered in one party, run for office in a second party, then support the ticket of a third party." In "A Bathroom of Her Own" he refers sourly to "the system laughingly called 'nonpartisan'; a man can be elected in the primary by getting a clear majority." Since this describes the rules under which Heinlein ran his California race, we can identify it as one of the "autobiographical details" that he said could be found in the story. (This is the one I mentioned as occurring in the third paragraph.)16

    One hot issue on the ballot in California in 1938 was a referendum for an amendment to the state constitution to provide old-age pension warrants. It was an interesting proposition, pushed by brothers named Willis and Lawrence Allen: To each unemployed person fifty years of age or over, the state would issue each week thirty warrants with a face value of one dollar each, which could in theory be spent like money. Each warrant required a two-cent revenue stamp to be affixed to it each week by the current holder. At the end of one year, the warrant would be honored by the state for its face value, using the $1.04 in revenue stamps it would then carry to fund the payout and the administrative costs. An intriguing idea, and thirty dollars was no mean sum in 1938; Heinlein suggested in his 1985 interview with Peter Heck that we should multiply his first story payment of seventy dollars in 1939 by twenty (the factor of increase in the price of gold at that time) to get a clear idea of how fortunate he felt to have found his new career.17

    Using his figure, the jobless elderly would have received the equivalent of approximately six hundred dollars a week in 1985 dollars.

    But the money wasn't to be borrowed. Merchants who accepted the one-dollar warrants in payment and affixed the necessary revenue stamps to maintain their value would, in effect, be paying a two-percent tax on the retail price of the goods for which they had accepted warrants in payment. This was during the Great Depression, of course, when storekeepers might be happy to make sales even with a new tax imposed.

    And holders would also be motivated to keep the warrants circulating. The State of California would be creating a new currency with a built-in momentum, money that holders would be foolish not to spend -- for if they hoarded the warrants, they would have to affix additional revenue stamps, so that the value to the holders would be effectively declining. Only by spending them could the warrants' maximum value be realized.

    In a day when growers were burning produce while people lacked the money to buy food, a form of money that had to keep moving might have provided a solution to the economic standstill that was paralyzing the economy.

    This, at least, was the theory. But the measure was controversial. FDR denounced it, calling it "fantastic" and saying it would infringe on the federal government's sole right to issue currency. Merchants' associations declared that their members would not accept the warrants. "Thirty Dollars Every Thursday" became both a rallying cry and an expression of scorn. Upton Sinclair opposed it, saying it was a "cruel hoax" on the elderly, since the warrants were not actually money and need not be accepted in payment for purchases.

    The measure lost in 1938 and again in 1939, so it was an idea that was never tried. But what was candidate Heinlein's position on it?

    In 1941 Heinlein wrote Beyond This Horizon, a novel of the future with unorthodox financial arrangements: the government provides basic support to citizens as a means of distributing additional currency required to keep up with the national increase in wealth. (This idea was the essence of the Social Credit movement, which was often discussed and debated in EPIC News. By the way, Social Credit may have also provided SF with the future unit of money known as "credits" in many stories, including some of Heinlein's; EPIC News ran articles by Social Credit advocates urging the government to issue negotiable "due bills or credits" against taxes to stimulate the economy.) One might suppose that the author of such an imaginative work would have been a supporter of the "Thirty Dollar" proposal. Indeed, given his political activism, and the ingenuity of the plan, it's easy to imagine that Heinlein might have had some part in formulating it.

    That would have been my guess, at least. But Heinlein has left us strong evidence that it ain't so. Pages 36-38 of the political manual contain a strong denunciation of the tendency of the elderly to seek money from the government. And if the general nature of that discussion leaves one still in some doubt on the specific question, Heinlein has elsewhere left a coded message -- one that can be decoded by reading the headlines that appeared during his 1938 political campaign.

    That message appears on p. 556 of Expanded Universe: "One thing I learned as a wardheeler was that (with scarce exceptions) people in my age group want one of two things: 1) they want to keep clipping those coupons and collecting those rents and they don't give a damn what it does to the country, or 2) they want that raise in Social Security (Townsend Plan) ('Ham and Eggs') (you name one) and they don't give a damn what it does to the country."

    Everyone knows what Social Security is, and the Townsend Plan is easily recognized as the pension platform of Dr. Francis Townsend in the nineteen thirties. But "Ham and Eggs"? What's that, other than a breakfast we used to enjoy before we knew about cholesterol?

    I must have read this passage time and again without knowing the answer -- just another of the obscure references that Heinlein's work is full of. But after I had gone through the newspaper stories of the 1938 campaign in California, I had become quite familiar with the phrase, and when I chanced to glance again at that page of Heinlein's book, the words leapt out at me with the thrill of recognition.

    Here's the explanation of the phrase:

Since it was obviously out of the question to conduct a campaign under the impossible slogan of 'Thirty-Dollars-Every-Thursday Plan,' the promoters sought a name that would appeal in brevity and everyday familiarity to the mass of voters. One day, addressing a group of campaign workers, a speaker promised that before the ensuing election the pension movement would become as familiar to the California voters as ham and eggs. The phrase was immediately seized upon as a God-given answer to the quest for an inspired catchword, and the campaign for the millennium was conducted under that incongruous and messy slogan. The fantastic pension plan came before the voters as an initiative measure in the election of 1938, and, thanks to an intensive campaign of advertising and ballyhoo, polled 1,143,676 votes out of a total of 3,611,416!18

    So 'Ham and Eggs" was another nickname for the "Thirty Dollars Every Thursday" plan of old-age pension warrants, much used by headline writers presumably because it fitted well into narrow newspaper columns.

    Did Heinlein hurt himself in that 1938 primary by not supporting Ham and Eggs? It's a little late for a postmortem analysis. But I can't help wondering what made that longtime politico, Charles Lyon, issue the statement about the property-tax break and funding of pensions for the elderly that he'd be proposing if re-elected. If Heinlein was alienating older voters in his district by failing to give his wholehearted support to a referendum that would favor them, perhaps the winning votes could be picked up with a press release, using the incumbent's advantage of being able to get press coverage as an elected office-holder.

    It's also notable that the senatorial and gubernatorial candidates of Heinlein's party -- both of whom won election -- supported the Ham and Eggs plan.

    We may never know to what degree his apparent opposition to Ham and Eggs may have hurt Heinlein in the election. But we can guess, I think, why Heinlein kept his early involvement in politics obscure all those years, why he took no political stance in the book finally published as Take BackYour Government!

    That book could have remained nonpartisan even if Heinlein had chosen to be candid about his political past. James Farley wrote a book about the mechanics of politics without attempting to disguise his history as a Roosevelt man; Heinlein cites it in this book, in the Denvention speech, and elsewhere.

    On page 30 of Heinlein's book we find the author stating for the record his ethnic background (Irish, English, French, and German) and the religion in which he was raised (Methodist). I doubt it would have hurt his message of the need for political involvement to have added something along the lines of: During the thirties I was a registered Democrat active in Upton Sinclair's EPIC movement in California. If he had changed his views or his registration since then, he could have said so, as many others have; it is no disgrace. If not, he could have said he still believed in the principles he worked for then, and perhaps added something like: Some called EPIC socialist and even communistic; they are entitled to their opinion, but I considered it a workable plan to kickstart a stalled economy and prevent the ruination of lives, especially children's. Renting land and factories is far different from confiscating them, which is what communism would have meant. Unlike giveaway schemes, EPIC would have been powered by the resourcefulness and hard work for which Americans have always been known.

    Such an approach would have let him pepper the book with specific names, dates, and places, making it more interesting and readable. If the elderly man mentioned on page 118 was Upton Sinclair, he could have said so; he could have named the governor that he and his first wife helped to elect, and could have been more specific about how they helped. He could have given details about his own candidacy, including any dirty tricks involved, instead of putting such incidents into a story and saying he would plead the Fifth Amendment if questioned on specifics.

    The essential work in effecting such changes could have been accomplished in an afternoon. Would admitting to being an EPIC Democrat have hurt sales of the book? No, it could only have helped, because this book as it stands did not make its all-important first sale -- to a publisher. For twenty years or so it was merely a ream of used typing paper in Heinlein's files, and after that, became available only to visitors to the UCSC library, while the political world it described changed and changed again.

    Something kept that book in the filing cabinet; most likely, I suspect, the same thing that made Heinlein furious when that 1941 speech praising Upton Sinclair and George Norris emerged from his past, in the uncontrollable form of a reprint from a fan publication that had left it arguably in the public domain. Heinlein claimed the copyright and the speech did not appear in print again until its posthumous publication in Requiem.

    The nineteen forties and fifties were hardly tolerant times when it came to left-wing politics. Even nonpolitical entertainment like the "Sam Spade" detective show could be taken off radio because Spade's creator was a radical. In 1946, Richard Nixon beat Jerry Voorhis in a Congressional race by portraying Voorhis as a leftist, partly because of Voorhis's advocacy of Sinclair and EPIC.19 Charles Chaplin's support for Sinclair was one of the political sins that was used to keep him from returning to the U.S. for decades. Closer to home, Reuben W. Borough, editor of the EPIC News in 1934, was hauled before the California Legislature's "un-American activities" committee, partly because of his association with EPIC.

    People like Nixon and McCarthy had perfected a technique of getting around the constitutional protections that American citizens are supposed to enjoy. The Bill of Rights, in guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly, would seem to protect citizens against a Congress that demanded to know what meetings they had attended, what political organizations they had joined, or what causes and candidates they had supported; in guaranteeing a right not to bear witness against oneself, it would seem to protect citizens from being forced to appear and respond to incriminating questions under oath. The dodge of "investigating subversion" in various industries allowed Senators and Congressmen to make headlines and be photographed in tough poses while demanding answers to just such questions; refusal to answer on constitutional grounds was met, not only with charges of contempt of Congress, but by innuendoes that anyone refusing must have something to hide -- must be a Communist or even a spy or a traitor. Such accusations could not be refuted, for members of Congress have immunity from libel and slander laws for their official statements. Publicity and "public opinion" did the rest, as friends defected, clients decamped, and employers drew up blacklists.

    Nixon, the consummate artist in this field of endeavor, managed the trick of sending a man to prison for denying that he had committed a crime for which he could not have been jailed if he had confessed to it, the statute of limitations having expired. Nixon used the publicity from this case to win election as Senator and then Vice President, and eventually became President of the United States. McCarthy, a dull imitator, was censured by the Senate -- but the real reason for his fall was not his indifference to citizens' rights, but the single-minded quality that made him persist in attacking the govemment after the administration had been taken over by candidates of his own party whom he had helped to elect.

    Heinlein had to be one of the few authors in America who was willing to say he saw little wrong with investigations like McCarthy's and Nixon's; he registers a distaste for McCarthy's personality, nothing more, and even suggests that Thomas Jefferson might have conducted a similar inquiry.20

    Even though Heinlein said he had nothing to fear from the likes of Senator Joe McCarthy, he must have known that it wasn't true. An author of Saturday Evening Post and Boy's Life stories and youth-oriented SF books could be badly hurt by associations from decades past. Heinlein's career as a Hollywood screenwriter and his connections with TV shows such as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet were other vulnerable sources of income. A demagogue like Nixon or McCarthy might have deprived Heinlein of his livelihood.

    And if Heinlein had been willing to face the investigators' smears, there was another factor. It was not enough to declare that one had seen the error of one's ways and was now a rock-ribbed Republican; to convince the committeemen, one had to name names. You had to turn in your friends so that they, too, could be put through the purification process. You had to either do that or "take the Fifth" and refuse to testify at all; the committees did not countenance invoking conscience or the Constitution when it came to identifying others -- several witnesses tried.

    Everyone who knew him seems to agree that Heinlein was steadfastly loyal to his friends; so that may have been the sticking point for him, his reason (even if he could disregard the personal consequences) for avoiding mention of EPIC and Upton Sinclair throughout his long writing career and demanding that others respect his privacy on the subject of his youthful political activity while he remained alive.

    In a way, then, Take Back Your Government! is most revealing for what it does not say -- what its author was most careful not to say.

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