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Perry on Politics: Man Against the Machine

Published by James M. Perry on .

By James M. Perry

In the spring of 1966, Robert P. Casey (father of Senator Bob Casey), lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania to a little stoop-shouldered millionaire named Milton Shapp. Never before -- not once in history -- had the official candidate for governor been beaten in a primary.

Shapp"I am a much wiser man now than I was a year ago," Casey said. "The old ways no longer work."

The man who engineered this stunning upset was Joseph Napolitan, one of the pioneers in the new high-tech way of running political campaigns. He died the other day at the age of 84. His career took off in Pennsylvania.

Shapp, owner of Jerrold Corp., which made TV antennae, among other things (he sold it and it was merged into what is now Motorola), was Jewish, divorced and remarried, not very attractive physically, not the best speaker in the world, and had no power base at all, Napolitan wrote in a post-election memo. What he did have was money, ambition, and intelligence.

It was Shapp who came up with the campaign slogan, "The Man Against the Machine." The man, of course, was Shapp, the machine was Casey. Never mind that Shapp would have taken the party's endorsement if it had been offered to him or that Casey was an intelligent, honest, and decent politician who didn't think much of the machine -- meaning to many voters Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Soddom and Gomorrah of Pennsylvania politics -- either.

"When the campaign started," Casey said, "he had an extensive staff. I had nobody. The best I ever managed was to get a campaign manager, hire three men to write press releases and speeches, put a few girls to work as secretaries in our headquarters, and line up a driver to take me around the state." The party leaders didn't think he needed much more. Shapp, everyone said (including former Mayor David Lawrence of Pittsburgh), didn't have a chance.

Napolitan took polls and mailed out more than 3 million leaflets and brochures, but he won the election, just as he thought he would, with TV.

He hired Charles Guggenheim, pretty much a genius at this sort of thing, to produce the campaign commercials for a paltry Shapp Ad$120,000. One of them, titled The Man Against the Machine, ran for 30 minutes during the primary and remains a classic.

It opens with a shot of the statue of the corrupt and cynical Boies Penrose on the grounds of the state capitol in Harrisburg. The announcer's voice (Guggenheim picked a professional narrator, Shelby Storck, for the job) ticks off a few of Penrose's bon mots, including this one: "Politics is a profession. Better to lose an election than lose control of the party."

It continues:

"The majestic figure of Boies Penrose looks across the street to the professionals of another generation. They are the faces of organized politics in Pennsylvania. February 1966. The waiting press and newsreels have known most of them for years. They are the veterans of the ward headquarters and the precincts. They are the hundred or so members of the Democratic Policy Committee, who have permits to pass through the doors that will then close. Inside they will name a candidate for governor. It will take an hour to meet, vote, and adjourn. The meeting will be closed. Press and other Democrats outside."

While Storck (who wrote the script and directed the filming) narrates these horrors, the camera actually shows the sergeant-at-arms checking off the names of the "bosses" as they arrive for the closed-door session. Then the big doors swing closed. Only then does the title of the documentary flash across the screen, "The Man Against the Machine."

"It was the best thing of its kind ever done," Napolitan said, and so it may have been.

The final vote on election night, May 17, 1966, was Shapp, 543,057, Casey, 493,886.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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