Sunday, January 10th 2016
“Typically [Theodore] Roosevelt would ask a half-dozen reporters to join him in the afternoon in a small room off his office. There, a Treasury Department messenger would shave the president as he served up a mix of politics, policy and gossip. The excitable Roosevelt would often spring out of his armchair, lather flying off his face, to lecture the newsmen, who were barely able to squeeze in a word, let alone a question.”
Public Diplomacy officers who organize press conferences for the President or other administration principals will enjoy reading the January 8, 2014, article by David Greenberg, “A Century of Political Spin,“ in The Wall Street Journal. Greenberg teaches history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers. His entertaining article on “spin” profiled presidential press conferences, speechwriting, photo ops, and the use of television from TR to the present.
- . . . the spin that we find so pervasive today is nothing new. It actually goes back more than a century. In fact, all those revered past presidents were pioneers in honing the modern methods of image-making and message-craft that we now so often denounce.
- Since Theodore Roosevelt’s day, when candidates began campaigning for votes and presidents started regularly courting the public, politicians have been refining the tools and techniques of what we now call spin.
- Spin turns out to be woven into the fabric of American politics, and though it is hardly an unmixed good, it is inseparable from many of the signature achievements of our greatest leaders.
- Consider the presidential press conference, an institution so familiar today that no one thinks twice about it. But it began as a political gambit. When he became president in 1901, the spotlight-loving Teddy Roosevelt realized that news coverage was changing. Newspapers had once targeted elite audiences loyal to a paper’s editorial line; now big-city dailies claimed millions of readers hungry for news. TR realized that by providing the news, he could shape it.
- Roosevelt’s successors institutionalized this practice . . . . William Howard Taft, though much more press-shy than TR, held press conferences on occasion, and Woodrow Wilson opened them to anyone with credentials. Soon they were widely regarded as an essential part of American democracy.
- Speechwriting had come easily to Roosevelt and Wilson—Wilson kept a typewriter at his desk—but not to Warren Harding, who was renowned for his windiness. (H.L. Mencken wrote that Harding’s speaking style “reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.”) So Harding turned to an Iowa newspaperman named Judson Welliver who became—in reality if not in formal title—the first White House speechwriter.
- Harding’s successors followed this model, relying on a stable of hired pens to perfect the presidential message. No politician today who takes to the podium dares go at it alone.
- . . . it was the seemingly guileless, mild-mannered Calvin Coolidge who helped turn the photo op into a regular tool in the image-makers’ kit.
- The shutters always clicked during Coolidge’s trips to his homestead in Vermont, which provided camera-ready settings to catch him wielding a scythe or riding a tractor—decades before Ronald Reagan chopped wood at Santa Barbara or George W. Bush cleared brush in Texas. Coolidge was filmed felling trees and pitching hay, sometimes wearing a business suit.
- “You apply the same test to public opinion that you do to ore,” [Emil Hurja] explained [to Franklin Roosevelt]. “In mining, you take several samples from the face of the ore, pulverize them and find out what the average pay per ton will be. In politics, you take sections of voters.” Then, he said, “you can accurately predict an election result.”
- Harry Truman . . . loved to belittle pollsters. “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt?” he asked. But when the underdog president hit the hustings in 1948 on his whistle-stop tour, his staff had dutifully reviewed survey data showing how he might follow a path to victory.
- Dwight Eisenhower . . . became the first president to bring spin into the television era. . . . . A year into his presidency, Eisenhower hired [movie star Robert Montgomery] to help him master the new medium. . . . . . Over the course of Eisenhower’s two terms in the White House, Montgomery gave the president a new look, trading dark gray suits for light ones and striped shirts for blues. Banishing Eisenhower’s black horn-rimmed glasses, Montgomery instructed the former general to read his cue cards without them.
- From behind-the-scenes operatives to before-the-cameras stagecraft, the pillars of today’s towering edifice of spin have long been integral to presidential leadership. Seeing the past as a spin-free zone turns out to be not just a factual error but an act of deceptive nostalgia. The story of modern American politics isn’t a steady decline from authenticity to artifice. Rather, it is a story of the refinement of tools and techniques that presidents—pretty much all of them—have cannily exploited from the moment they became available.
- Nor does the long history of spin mean that our politics have always been an empty spectacle. Of course, in massaging the press and crafting their words and images, politicians have overpromised, misrepresented their opponents and inflated their own accomplishments. But our leaders have also used these same tools to produce moments of lasting inspiration.
- Theodore Roosevelt’s crusades for fairer regulation, Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a just international order, FDR’s gallant wartime leadership, Eisenhower’s rallying the nation to the space race, Reagan’s challenge to tear down the wall of Soviet oppression—many of the greatest moments of presidential leadership have been forged not by lone statesmen but by teams of savvy speechwriters, pollsters and image crafters. Spin has often helped modern presidents to mislead, but it has been just as essential, at crucial junctures in our history, in helping them to lead.