How Much Does ‘Spin’ Count In Politics?

Author David Greenberg discusses the use of spin in politics.

The job title of “spin doctor” may seem like a relatively new one, but politicians have had them on their team since the turn of the 20th century. One could hardly win the White House or govern effectively without the skills these public relations specialists deploy. With more interest in the topic during election season, Wharton Business Radio’s [email protected] show sat down with David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University, to discuss his book, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

Politics Republic Of Spin


An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: When watching both the Republican and Democratic conventions play out, what’s your general reaction?

David Greenberg: From the point of view of spin, the conventions have become the apotheosis of spin. These are weeklong efforts by the parties and the candidates to put their absolute best foot forward. Every speech [you get], every little segment that’s done, is all planned and crafted. And that, for the last 100 plus years, is what campaigns — and also the White House — have learned how to do with everything they want to achieve.

[email protected]: When did it all really get started?

Greenberg: Well, the book starts with Theodore Roosevelt, and both in his campaigning for the presidency, and also in his governing from the White House, you really see that turn of the last century is when things changed. You have new media technologies – first, mass-circulation newspapers, and very soon, radio and newsreels. You have a president who is trying to be a symbol or tribute for the people, who is going out and trying to move and sway public opinion. That is really the key, operative idea. Then you have someone like Teddy Roosevelt, who comes up with all of these ways to try new publicity stunts, hire press officers, that whole apparatus that today, dwarfs anything that he could have devised….

“[Teddy Roosevelt] wrote to a magazine publisher, getting a contract for multipart installment of his wartime heroics before he went to fight in Cuba, so he knew this was going to be good publicity.”

Even when he was with the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, he was thinking about the media. He wrote to a magazine publisher, getting a contract for multipart installment of his wartime heroics before he went to fight in Cuba, so he knew this was going to be good publicity. Then when he came back a hero, he was practically elected governor of New York by acclamation because of the media hype around his heroics there. He was an instinctive master at it.

[email protected]: What was it that got you thinking about doing a book on spin?

Greenberg: Well, my first book was on Richard Nixon, someone I always had an interest in. Some of my earliest memories as a kid were of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. And Nixon was really the modern master of the image, and the presidency as the seat of image making. But when I finished that book, I realized there were actually deeper roots, that this didn’t begin with Nixon at all. So I went back to try to study it: Where does the modern presidency, with its focus on image making, on the crafting of the message, on the swaying of public opinion, begin? That’s where I found that it really goes back at least to T.R., and I wanted to tell the story, because no one had told this whole story.

There are bits and pieces about J.F.K., or Reagan … with their pollsters, but no one had really woven together, as this book does, the history of the presidents, the history of the spin doctors who are their advisors and consigliores, and the history of the writers and journalists and intellectuals who see this whole machinery of spin develop, and try to explain to the public what is going on. It’s really this master narrative of all these different colorful characters, woven together into one big story.

[email protected]: Would you say Richard Nixon was one of the best of the presidents at pulling this off … trying to get their point across?

Greenberg: Nixon was very good until he wasn’t. Nixon’s earliest debut on the national scene was actually at a convention with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Soon after that he comes under fire for a scandal, and he’s keeping this slush fund. And in response, he gives a speech where he talks about his family, and his little dog, Checkers, who his girls had been given as a gift. If they’re going to get him on gifts and taking money, it was just this wonderful dog.

[email protected]: Blame the dog.

Greenberg: Right, exactly. A lot of people thought this was hokey, but it really worked. That was an instance where he really found the right register. But the problem with Nixon is he often was too transparent at it. One of my favorite Nixon stories was that he always envied the pictures of John F. Kennedy or Robert Kennedy walking on the beach, looking so carefree. So he arranges to have his own sea shot, as they called it, and he had all of the reporters and photographers come out to a bluff in San Clemente where he had his western White House, waiting for the sea shot. He comes out, walking in wing tips and trousers. He doesn’t look Kennedy-esque, he looks like someone trying to look Kennedy-esque. And with Nixon, you could often see him trying.

[email protected]: He was never even close to being anything near looking like a Kennedy.

Greenberg: Right, right. Over the years, the public partly learns to see through these tricks and devices. Yes, there’s more spin than ever now, but we’re also pretty good at seeing through it, I think.

[email protected]: With social media being so prevalent these days, it’s harder to get away with that type of thing now than it would have been, say, 20 years ago?

Greenberg: It’s sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s harder to get straight, uninflected news than it used to be. It used to be that we could count on certain radio stations, television stations and newspapers to give us news that was relatively free of bias — I mean, no one’s perfectly objective. But now, almost everything is coming at you with an edge, an angle, a partisan spin. On the other hand, that is the world we live in, so we’re trained to account for it, to discount for the bias, discount for the argument. We know not to just take somebody else’s tweet or somebody else’s web posting at face value.

[email protected]: You mentioned that with Teddy Roosevelt, the real push came in terms of newspapers. Then came radio, and newsreels. Then you get into the 1940s and 1950s, and television comes along, and that becomes the new medium to use. And then, after a several decades, you get to, realistically, President Obama in the Internet age. Did you notice significant sea changes in the approach of the spin doctors and the presidents as

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