H.W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is “Reagan: The Life.”
When Theodore Roosevelt was president of the New York City police board, he discovered that reporters made remarkably effective assistants. Roosevelt would invite the correspondents on his midnight rambles through the seedy sections of the city, where he sought out corrupt patrolmen. He understood the bitterly competitive nature of the newspaper business in New York in the 1890s, and he recognized the pressure the papers felt to deliver headlines that would arrest readers’ attention. “A Baghdad Night,” shouted the Commercial Advertiser after a typical trawl. “Roosevelt in the Role of Haroun Alraschid. Police Caught Napping.”
The board president took pains to cut a dashing figure. “Sing, heavenly Muse, the sad dejection of our poor policemen,” the World lyricized. “We have a real Police Commissioner. His name is Theodore Roosevelt. His teeth are big and white, his eyes are small and piercing, his voice is rasping. He makes our policemen feel as the little froggies did when the stork came out to rule them.” The papers didn’t uniformly like Roosevelt — the mockery in the World’s tone was evident — but they couldn’t resist the stories he gave them.
David Greenberg rightly begins “Republic of Spin,” his history of spin and the American presidency, with TR. Roosevelt won the New York governorship on the strength of “Rough Riders,” a shamelessly self-promoting account of his exploits in the Spanish-American War; from there he vaulted into the vice presidency and, upon the murder of William McKinley, the presidency. Roosevelt employed the publicity tools that had won him office to work the levers of power. He made himself a story no Washington reporter could pass up, gathering around him a coterie of correspondents whose inside access required strict adherence to ground rules he set. They could quote him only with his express permission. A French writer whom Roosevelt wanted to impress was included in one of the “seances,” as the gatherings were called, and emerged with a notebook of revealing remarks from the American chief executive. The gist shortly appeared in the press. Roosevelt denied having said anything of the sort or even having spoken to the man. He later explained his apparent duplicity: “Of course I said it, but I said it as Theodore Roosevelt and not as the President of the United States!”
What worked for one president became institutionalized, as successful practices do. And the institutionalization of presidential spin paralleled the permeation of spin throughout American life. Greenberg neatly weaves a history of public relations into his political tale; we see the emergence of PR as an accepted and eventually respected industry during the 1920s and after. Equally crucial was the evolution of technology. To get his message to millions, Roosevelt had to work through the press; his fifth cousin, nephew by marriage and progressive protege Franklin Roosevelt exploited the capacity of radio. The new broadcast medium’s apparent absence of spin made its spin all the more powerful. FDR’s radio addresses were cast as fireside chats, with the president speaking simply to his fellow Americans as though they were all sitting around a communal hearth. The first chat set the tone. At a moment when the banking system was paralyzed, when millions of Americans had no idea whether they would ever again see their hard-earned deposits, when the chill of the Great Depression clutched at hearts all across America, Roosevelt’s calm voice came into living rooms and bedrooms like that of a reassuring father and told Americans that everything was going to be all right. They believed him. And their belief became the crucial last link in Roosevelt’s rescue of the banks.
The success of the spin didn’t prevent Americans from realizing they were being spun, and Greenberg devotes another theme of his story to critiques of the whole business. From H.L. Mencken to Hannah Arendt and Garry Trudeau, nearly everyone who has commented on modern politics, modern communications or simply modern life has weighed in on the struggle to shape the terms of debate of democracy. The critiques themselves, meanwhile, contributed to another part of Greenberg’s story: the evolution of what amounted to anti-spin defense systems on the part of the media. Responsible journalists had always sought to counter presidential claims with sources of their own, but during the decades of World War II and the early Cold War, a certain symbiosis developed between big government and big media. Citing national security, presidential administrations would warn the media against peering too closely into the black box of policy, and the media obliged.
But when the Vietnam War went badly, and the Pentagon Papers revealed that administrations had been lying about the war for years, and when Watergate, which grew out of the Pentagon Papers, showed that the deceit went far beyond anything touching national security, the cozy compact was blasted to bits. The media went into full opposition mode. Almost everything every administration official uttered or published was presumed to be dangerously misleading; the radar of the anti-spin systems tracked the enemy missiles from launch and sent interceptors to destroy them.
It didn’t help the government side in its contest with the media that its high ground was soon seized by conservatives who claimed that government was not the solution to America’s problems but the problem itself. Yet, as Greenberg notes, even the anti-government government forces had their spin specialists, with Ronald Reagan being one of the best. How else to explain the Gipper’s ability to walk away from the train wreck of Iran-contra with barely a scratch?
Which leads to the most basic question of all: Does any of this matter? Greenberg guides the reader through six ages of efforts to manage the news (“Age of Publicity,” “Age of Ballyhoo,” etc.), culminating in today’s comprehensive “Age of Spin.” Yet even in our present advanced era, Greenberg declines to grant the spin machines decisive credit. The Reagan revolution, he says, was marked by shrewd management of the media, but it succeeded on its merits. “The idea that Reagan and his team used their media proficiency to fool the public into buying a conservative agenda belonged to the tradition of frustrated protests of antagonists unwilling to credit a rival’s successes. By and large Americans knew what they were getting with Reagan.” Nor is the resistance President Obama has encountered from the Republicans on health care and other issues due to a failure of his spin skills. “You know, I can make some really good arguments defending the Democratic position, and there are going to be some people who just don’t agree with me,” Obama told “60 Minutes,” with Greenberg nodding silently.
Perhaps the spinners offset one another, the way the twin rotors of large helicopters do. Perhaps the American people have become inured to decades of message-massaging. Greenberg’s title suggests disdain for its subject: “Spin” is a label usually reserved for what one’s opponents do. Yet Greenberg is far from categorically critical. “If spin is used for misleading, it is also used for leading,” he writes. “Throughout history, presidents, using the machinery of spin, have contributed to wartime hysteria and baleful complacency, resentment and fear. But they have also given us the golden flares of inspiration that moved the public, in their own times and for decades after.”
Which shows that historians can do it, too.
By David Greenberg
Norton. 540 pp. $35