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Orson Welles sparked fear with his War of the Worlds broadcast

Orson Welles talks with reporters following his War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. — NY Daily News/Getty Images

Orson Welles

Those who remember Welles, if at all, only as the bloated pitchman for middle-brow winemaker Paul Masson, probably can't imagine what a meteor he was when he emerged as a triple-threat writer-director-actor on Broadway and then in Hollywood in the late 1930s. The auteur of Citizen Kane blazed as brightly across the political world, campaigning tirelessly for Franklin Roosevelt (even standing in against GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey at one 1944 event), enlisting in causes from civil rights to global peace, and penning a column for the New York Post, then a pillar of liberal thought.

In 1946, Welles even seriously considered seeking a U.S. Senate seat from California until he was dissuaded partly by a young Democratic activist named Alan Cranston, a future senator himself. On screen and off, Welles' youthful brilliance soon burned out. But over an incandescent decade, he set a standard for substantive engagement with politics that very few of his celebrity successors would match.


Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal and the author of The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection. Some of the material in this article was adapted from that book.

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