Spin City: America's President-Making Machine

February 18, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: BooksJournalismPublic RelationsUnited StatesElections

Spin City: America's President-Making Machine

One hundred years of advertising in U.S. politics.

David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 640 pp., $35.00.


SPIN. This sibilant, hissing little word slithered its way into the national lexicon during the 1988 presidential campaign, David Greenberg tells us in his splendid and important new book on the public relations of American politics. Minions and factotums dashed out the vomitoria of the debate arenas to assert victory to the cameras and microphones on behalf of their respective clients, George H.W. Bush or Michael Dukakis. Thus was born “Spin Alley.”

The next election cycle gave us Bill Clinton and the era of “it depends what your definition of ‘is’ is.” (Clinton was a product of a good Jesuit education at Georgetown, we sometimes forget.) Then we had the testosterone-flavored spin of George W. and “Mission Accomplished,” followed by Barack Obama and the Zen-like “spin of no spin.” (Whatever that means.) Those ur-spinners of 1988 triggered a butterfly effect: a quarter century on, the fluttering of their lips has created a hurricane of spin. No one seems able to decide for sure if there really were thousands of Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11, cheering and jeering as the towers came down. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. Donald Trump insists he saw those bastards cheering. On TV! Even if no one else did. And if you don’t agree with him, he doesn’t give a damn. Let the hurricane blow. Hold onto your hats with one hand, and with the other, turn the pages of Greenberg’s book to find out how on earth we got here.

Greenberg is the author of among other books, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. He is a historian of American politics and a professor at Rutgers University. There’s scholarly meat in these 640 pages, starting with a discussion of Plato and Aristotle’s competing views on rhetoric, and going on to finely wrought riffs from Hannah Arendt. It is a textbook study, but lively as can be. Greenberg is a terrific storyteller, with a ginger touch and a falcon eye for the brilliant detail, which makes his book an education and an engrossing read. Republic of Spin is surely the definitive book on a definitively American subject: the making and manipulation of public opinion.

Greenberg’s central thesis is America’s ambivalence (nearly schizophrenic, at times) about a talent it disposes arguably better than any other country in history. America’s exceptionalism extends to its mastery of public opinion and advertising and image making. But as we are fundamentally a decent species of folk, this gift of ours makes us very, very uncomfortable. More than once as I was reading Republic of Spin did I think of a moment in perhaps the quintessential American movie, when a little dog pulls back the curtain to reveal an old man furiously manipulating levers and shouting into a voice-altering engine-room speaking tube.


GREENBERG BEGINS his history with Theodore Roosevelt, whom he calls America’s “first full-fledged celebrity,” the archetype of the “man in the arena.” Owen Wister, who wrote an American classic called The Virginian without ever having foot in Virginia, said of his Harvard classmate that he “was his own limelight.” And TR knew how to keep the limelight focused. He never stopped cultivating reporters and had a visceral feel for how to use publicity “as a weapon.” He was the master and creator of the White House as bully pulpit.

Part of TR’s genius for manipulating opinion was in part a product of his extraordinary, even atomic, energy. Greenberg gives us a marvelous scene at the Cosmos Club, as Rudyard Kipling sits, rapt, as TR talks (and talks): “I curled up on the seat opposite,” Kipling described the moment, “and listened and wondered until the universe seemed to be spinning around and Theodore Roosevelt was the spinner.” (How delighted Greenberg must have been to find that.)

TR was also a Machiavel. It was he who first came up with the trick of releasing bad news on a Friday so as to bury it in the Saturday papers; who came up with floating trial balloons to see if a policy would take flight; who recognized the power of the news camera (though Greenberg notes that McKinley was the first president to make a campaign film). Perhaps TR’s greatest PR insight was to keep it short. He never stopped talking, but when he had a message to convey, he put it in as few words as possible so that it wouldn’t be misquoted. (“Speak loudly and carry a big stick”; “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” etc.)

TR also understood that the press corps would be grateful to have an improved White House pressroom; and to have informal press conferences. But there were certain rules, and woe to those pressmen who flouted them. They became members of the “Ananias Club”—“named for a Christian biblical figure who dropped dead after lying to the apostle Peter.” Not that TR himself was above lying and equivocating. And he was adept at the jujitsu of leaking and then denying the leaks, prefiguring the immortal Captain Renault of Casablanca. (“I’m shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on here!”)

During that era, there were numerous Totos who knew how to pull back the curtain and reveal the darker insides of American industry. This was the age of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and the crusading journalists who took on Standard Oil and the mine owners and the meat industry. Many of them worked for McClure’s magazine under the legendary Samuel “S.S.” McClure. Its contributors list is stunning, a Who’s Who unto itself: Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White, Rudyard Kipling, Frank Norris, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Jack London and O. Henry. Those were the days.

To defend themselves against these upstart muckrakers, people like John D. Rockefeller turned to people like Ivy Ledbetter Lee, and another neologism entered the American lexicon: “public relations.” Lee became so adept at this new profession that he became himself a public figure. It was Lee who advised Rockefeller to distribute dimes to poor children. Not everyone was impressed. Carl Sandburg called Lee “a paid liar.”


WOODROW WILSON (whose name is now vanishing from various buildings) was also canny (up to a point) at the great art of bringing the public on board. He was an exponent of “pitiless publicity,” a term he annexed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Now we tend to call it “transparency.” This stratagem would eventually backfire—fatally—against Wilson. But for a while, he was really good at it. It was Wilson, we remember wistfully in our era of hour-long State of the Union speeches, who came up with the idea of delivering the annual report to Congress in person. He brought in the first one, in April 1913, in nine minutes. (Oh, to have that back!) It was well received. In a moment of gleeful schadenfreude, he chortled afterward to his wife Edith, “I think I put one over on Teddy.”

The early Wilson in these pages has an engaging, even warm personality: genial, witty, armed with a dandy sense of humor. He was even a crackerjack limerick-maker. (There is hardly a mention of the racism that has his name now being swabbed from buildings.) Later on, Wilson went back on his embrace of “pitiless publicity.” He insisted on secret negotiations at the post–World War I peace conference. This enraged his press handlers, Ray Baker and Edward Bernays. Baker would later publicly seethe that Wilson and the Allied leaders “had failed the acid test of the democracy of any people”—how it treats its press corps. In today’s era of self-glorifying media, that statement might give pause, but it expresses a fundamental truth. Putin’s Russia, for example, treats its upstart reporters rather harshly: it kills them.

World War I turned public relations into militant “propaganda” (a term that was first deployed in 1622, by the Vatican). A generation later, this would have dire consequences. The job of managing U.S. propaganda during the Great War fell to a man named George Creel, head of the Committee on Public Information. Creel quickly became unpopular, even despised, as Americans instinctively soured on being told what to think, even about the monstrous Hun.


WHEN IN THE 1930s Hitler came to power and the dreadful realities of Nazism became increasingly apparent, America was reluctant to engage in another propaganda war. The previous one had left the country—and not just its isolationists—with a case of caveat emptor, as well as an understandable reluctance to fight another European war. Meanwhile, Hitler’s Germany grew and grew.

In 1940, The Nation published the text of a speech by poet and librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish that, in Greenberg’s telling,

“criticized the retreat of scholars from moral and political commitments in favor of bloodless scientific values of ‘objectivity—detachment—dispassion.’ [MacLeish] faulted writers for trying to see the world ‘as a god sees it—without morality, without care, without judgment.’ . . . Nothing did more, MacLeish said, than World War I cynicism to ‘disarm democracy in the face of fascism.’”

FDR later turned to MacLeish to administer the straightforwardly named but unfortunately acronymed Office of Facts and Figures, America’s official propaganda agency. OFF’s staff was almost as flossy as McClure’s contributor list: Malcolm Cowley, E.B. White, McGeorge Bundy and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. But MacLeish soon came to despise his job of administering government-approved news (spin, avant la lettre). The conundrum remained: spinning stuck in the craw as a fundamentally distasteful undertaking.

On the dark side of the Atlantic, in Germany, spinning was not only highly regarded, but practically a Mosaic (as it were) commandment. As Greenberg notes, scholars view the chapter on propaganda in Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the only one with any value. The rest of it is an incoherent rant. In that chapter, Hitler instructs that people will fall for the big lie rather than the small one, and preaches that the target of propaganda is the emotions, not the intellect.

We learn from Greenberg (at least I did) that Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s, er, spin doctor, got a Ph.D. in Romantic Literature from Heidelberg University. He was the author of an unsuccessful novel and two unproduced plays. If only that fucking book had sold. If only Hitler’s paintings had sold. (There’s a tale waiting to be told: two failed Weimar artistes come together and put on a show.) Greenberg delivers fascinating details: American PR guru Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew twice over, was horrified to learn that his book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, had been recently seen on Goebbels’s desk in his library. Not quite the endorsement an author would hope for.


AFTER WORLD War II, White House spin developed pari passu with the increasingly sophisticated techniques of Madison Avenue and political consulting. After polls predicted the 1948 election with hilarious imprecision, new scrutiny and rigor were imposed. Teleprompters arrived in 1952. “Psy War,” eagerly embraced by Eisenhower, replaced propaganda. Ike himself, having to deal with TV, got makeovers and coaching appearances from the actor Robert Montgomery. Montgomery was such a constant presence that he became the first person in professional show business to have a permanent office in the White House. (Bonus detail: Montgomery bummed cigarettes rather than carry a pack, so as not to cause his suit pockets to bulge.)

Mad Men played a huge role in the Eisenhower administration, even if they didn’t get their own office space. The advertising firm BBDO became a sort of de facto government agency. Ike soon found himself being accused of running “an administration of hucksters and manipulators.” Poor Ike, moaning in the halls, “To think that an old soldier should come to this,” was capable of erratic PR impulses. At one point he decided cabinet meetings should be televised. (A nonstarter.) We are grateful that his impulses a decade earlier were sounder.

Then came 1960 and the Nixon and Kennedy debates, and nothing would ever be the same. Debates, which we cannot have enough of now, were not at the time universally regarded as a good thing. Historian Daniel Boorstin for one thought them a highly dubious development. But Boorstin presciently declared “Never again would any man attain the presidency or discharge its duties satisfactorily without entering into an intimate and conscious relation with the whole public.” And so today candidates for the job of leader of the free world must grovel before Stephen Colbert. I remember in 1993 watching Al Gore telling David Letterman that his Secret Service codename was “Joey Buttafuoco” and thinking, well, there goes what’s left of “the dignity of the office.”

In 1960, too, came author Teddy White, playing Toto very well indeed by yanking back the curtain with his paradigm-shifting The Making of the President. Nothing would ever the same on his side of the curtain after that. White begat Joe McGinnis and The Selling of the President 1968. Greenberg nicely calls his book a rebuttal, rather than a sequel, to White’s. McGinnis begat Timothy Crouse and The Boys on the Bus, which begat, along with Watergate’s Woodward and Bernstein, the reporter as celebrity. Which later, with the explosion of cable TV and the Internet and blogs and all the rest, begat the reporter-bloviator and the Sabbath Day gasbag.

As for pulling back the curtain, the grouchy Boorstin did allow that there was a certain pleasure to the act. (In this he disagreed with Walter Bagehot, who insisted that the British monarch must remain largely unseen by the public: “We must not let in daylight upon magic.”) Boorstin wrote of the debates, “We are all interested in watching a skillful feat of magic; we are still more interested in looking behind the scenes and seeing precisely how it was made to seem that the lady was sawed in half. . . . Even after we have been taken behind the scenes, we can still enjoy the pleasures of deception.” Cue The War Room.


WE COME, THEN, to Hannah Arendt, author of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report in the Banality of Evil, who wrote, “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.” In the 1960s, after she turned against the war in Vietnam, amidst 78 rpm-speed government spinning, Arendt enlarged upon the theme in a widely read piece in the New Yorker: “National propaganda on the government level has learned more than a few tricks from business practices and Madison Avenue methods.” Greenberg notes that Arendt “was not particularly worried that falsehood would triumph; firmly anti-relativist, she considered facts ‘stubborn’ and resilient. Her fear, rather, was that society would succumb to ‘a peculiar kind of cynicism—and absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything.’”

And there’s the rub. Does it matter, at this point, that there weren’t cheering mobs of Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11? Or is it a reductio ad absurdum to cite pronouncements of Donald Trump as an indicator of, really, anything? By the end of this year, we will know if Trump was an aberration, or an evolution. Meanwhile, here we are. It is 2016 in the Republic of Spin.

In the end, Greenberg himself doesn’t succumb to the cynicism Arendt warned of. Though he loudly clangs the tocsin of alarm, he draws reassurance from our Janus-like view of spin. We may be denizens of Plato’s cave, where we see only shadows on the wall instead of real forms, but at least we know we’re in the cave. “Paradoxically,” he says, “our persistent worry about spin, though at times debilitating, does serve to keep us vigilant about its abuse.” And thank God for that.

As for Plato’s student Aristotle, Greenberg reminds us that Aristotle did not disdain rhetoric. He viewed it as an essential element of politics.

Where do we stand on the Plato-Aristotle divide? Naturally, being American, we want it both ways.

“We fancy ourselves Platonists,” Greenberg writes, “deploring the inauthenticity of media politics and the unholy ministrations of the spin doctors. But deep down—perhaps unwittingly—we’re Aristotelians. Like the Obama of 2010, we’re ready to embrace spin if it serves what we consider legitimate purposes.”

We may live, he observes, in a “post-truth society” but as Arendt pointed out, there are limits to spin. French premier Georges Clemenceau was once asked how history would assess responsibility for World War I.

“This I don’t know,” Clemenceau is said to have answered, “but I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.”

Christopher Buckley’s new book is The Relic Master, a novel.

Image: Flickr/The White House