Friday, January 22, 2016

David Greenberg’s ‘Republic of Spin’

By MICHAEL BESCHLOSS JAN. 20, 2016, New York Times

Image from article, with caption: Warren Harding, front right row, and Albert Lasker, adman and adviser, center

When George Washington was president, our forebears did not wonder what
spurred his occasional ghostwriter, Alexander Hamilton, to make a particular
argument in the general’s 1796 farewell address. Nor did many voters in 1860
try to deconstruct why Abraham Lincoln’s propagandists chose to present him
as a backwoods rail­-splitter, which he had not been for a very long time,
instead of the well­-heeled corporate lawyer he had, thanks to hard work and
talent, become.

When presidents or candidates speak in public nowadays, however, voters
focus on the makeup artists and sorcerers lurking behind the curtain,
murmuring stage directions and working the teleprompter. Americans have
become conditioned to speculate not only about the content of what politicians
tell them but, as much or more, also about their motives and artifice —
sometimes to the point of ridiculous paranoia. For example, when George W.
Bush debated John Kerry in 2004, some viewers insisted that a visible bulge in
the back of the president’s suit must be some kind of electronic device allowing
Bush’s strategists to give him advice on what to say.

“Republic of Spin,” David Greenberg’s sound, judicious and dispassionate
volume, which draws on primary sources as well as the existing academic
literature, shows, from the standpoint of history, why being skeptical about
how presidents try to sell themselves is, mainly, a good thing. Citing the
lessons and interventions of Hannah Arendt, Vance Packard and others,
including the adman Rosser Reeves, Greenberg, a Rutgers professor of history,
journalism and media studies, shows us the arc, from William McKinley
campaigning from his front porch to the melodramatic Theodore Roosevelt to
the present.

Noting that the Progressive epoch saw the arrival of “self­-consciously
professional firms whose express purpose was to help clients burnish their
images and spread their messages,” the author describes how Woodrow
Wilson turned the tables “on those who might deem him unduly aristocratic”
by singling out Theodore Roosevelt as the elitist, implying that the latter
“initiated policies and then simply sold them to a star-struck, quiescent
public.” As Greenberg writes, the awkward Wilson “considered mass
communications — movies, photography, phonograph recordings — artificial
and undignified” and damaged himself by avoiding “such elementary practices
as giving interviews.”

Warren Harding was the first president to use anything close to a full­-time
speechwriter — Judson Welliver, who was called his “literary clerk.” The
existence of this post, Greenberg writes, began to “feed anxieties about
whether the voters were really getting the men they thought they were
electing.” Thanks to radio, the reach of the presidential voice was expanding
fast. In 1924, Bruce Bliven reported in The New Republic that Calvin
Coolidge’s addresses “have been heard by at least 10 times as many people as
have heard any other man who ever lived.”

No longer were presidential statements merely lines of type on a page.
Greenberg relates how Mildred Goldstein of Joliet, Ill., wrote to Franklin
Roosevelt after his first radio fireside chat, in 1933, that to her, presidents had
once been merely “a picture to look at. But you are real. I know your voice,
what you are trying to do.” The author describes Roosevelt’s exploitation of
polls to gauge public reactions to New Deal innovations and Republican
broadsides, and how Harry Truman, now viewed as a tower of authenticity,
was coached by a radio executive, who showed him how to pause “for dramatic

Charles de Gaulle believed that a leader derived power by preserving his
majesty through distance from the public. Greenberg recounts how, by
contrast, President Eisenhower offered television viewers a peek at the life of a
president in 1954 by allowing the cabinet room to be televised, and how John
Kennedy opened the door further by letting himself be filmed in the Oval
Office for a behind­-the-­scenes television documentary on the forced
integration of the University of Alabama in 1963. The author notes that in later
years, as chief executives have tried to court favor by satisfying the public
appetite for personal details about themselves, they have also taken the risk of
becoming less respected: “The small screen could undermine presidential
power as well as augment it. The encroachment of cameras and microphones
. . . into the once­-private chambers of government leaders served to diminish
the president’s majesty.”

The core of Greenberg’s fine, nuanced book is how the language of
presidents and those who want the job has transformed into the intensely
premeditated communications of our time. Saying so more frankly than his
predecessors probably would have, Richard Nixon argued in his memoirs that
for modern presidents, “concern for image must rank with concern for
substance.” Greenberg describes how Nixon’s “relentless P.R. efforts served to
strengthen his reputation for deviousness and insincerity” and says that “to
counter that image, he spun even more furiously, striking a pose of
authenticity and protesting that he paid image­-making no mind at all.”
Contrary to the pundit consensus of the time, the author believes that Ronald
Reagan, in his much celebrated role as a communicator, was no innovator but
instead “a master of methods that a long string of forebears had incrementally

William Safire wrote that the Old English word “spin” (“to whirl”) had
come, by the 1950s, also to mean “to deceive.” He noted that it “entered the
political lexicon” in 1984, in a New York Times editorial that said advisers to
that year’s majo-­party candidates, Reagan and Walter Mondale, “won’t be
just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll
be the Spin Doctors . . . and they’ll be playing for very high stakes.” In our own
time, one problem with using the term “spin” incautiously is that so many
people consider it to include the kind of deliberate lying we heard, for
example, during the Iraq War, from Saddam Hussein’s spokesman “Baghdad
Bob,” who denied the presence of American bombs that could be seen
exploding. (In fact, when Baghdad Bob was captured, United Press
International referred to him as a “spin doctor.”) If Americans presume that
politicians at the presidential level routinely practice spin, which they presume
to include flat­-out lying, is it any wonder that so many people loathe politics?

Greenberg finished writing this volume before the 2016 presidential
campaign revved up, but his treatment of how our political machinery became
so encrusted with deception shows why Americans have become fed up with
politicians who will not open their mouths without a focus group’s
foreguidance. A close reading of this book should also, however, have the effect
of cautioning voters not to let their disgust at such fakery push them to the
other extreme, searching, above all, for the candidate who exhibits the most
spontaneous persona. Huey Long and George Wallace were spontaneous too.

An Inside History of the American Presidency
By David Greenberg
540 pp. W. W. Norton and Company. $35.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian and contributing
columnist for The Times, is writing a history of presidential
leadership in wartime.

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