"Stand in back of me and we will make this town union free—You’re either with me or against me."
(1837-1917) He had a gift for name-calling that often goaded opponents to match his own fire-breathing level of political rhetoric. To Harrison Gray Otis, Democrats weren’t the opposition but “hags, harlots and pollutants.” Members of organized labor were “skunks, pinheads, gas-pipe ruffians, rowdies, anarchists and deadbeats.” Elections weren’t routine political events in a democracy but apocalyptic choices between the forces of good and evil. He saw his growing list of enemies as more ink for his poison pen, resulting in more readers of his newspaper. When the blast of invectives he provoked grew particularly harsh, Otis would publish his paper’s balance sheet by way of reply. Though ambitious, he didn’t find success until his mid-forties and, even then, his legions of detractors would attribute his prosperity to luck and having a son-in-law named Harry Chandler.
Otis’ first bully pulpit, the Santa Barbara Press, was a financial failure. He later bought a one-quarter interest in the new Los Angeles Daily Times just before a real estate boom sent advertising sales and newspaper revenues sky high. He bought out his partners and became sole owner. “The colonel”¬—he liked to be addressed by the military rank he earned during the Civil War—operated on two beliefs: people want to read their names in the paper and everybody likes to see somebody else kicked, preferably below the belt.
“When you worked for the Times in those days,” Louis Sherwin later remembered, “you were not reporting for a newspaper; you were embattled for a Cause.” Otis took pride in his growing reputation as the most aggressive and unyielding foe of organized labor in America. He founded the Merchants and Manufacturers (M&M) Association—a league of local businesses created to keep the unions out. He rallied the M&M membership with his cry: “We say to capital: Here you can invest in safety! Don’t hover between the lines or I will count you as the enemy! Decide!” Los Angeles eventually earned the nickname “Otistown of the Open Shop.” The burgeoning circulation of William Randolph Hearst’s pro-union Los Angeles Examiner reflected the growing anti-Otis constituency and explained in part how Los Angeles could simultaneously be the national headquarters for arch-conservative capitalism and a crucible for socialist politics. In 1907, the American Federation of Labor levied a penny-a-month assessment on its membership to create a war chest dedicated exclusively to fighting the man now called “the general.” At age 61, Otis had re-enlisted to serve in the Spanish-American War. For his tour of duty in the Philippines, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times was promoted by President McKinley to the rank of brigadier general.