How Much Does ‘Spin’ Count in Politics?

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Author David Greenberg discusses the use of spin in politics.

republic-of-spinThe 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 Knowledge@Wharton 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.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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 those media-technology periods developed, with TV, and the Internet?

“When presidents say, ‘oh, the problem was my messaging, my marketing,’ usually … that is a cover story for policies that aren’t resonating.”

Greenberg: What I notice is that with each new technology that emerges, presidents grapple and experiment as they try to learn how to master it. And usually, the first president to confront a new medium isn’t always the best. We think of J.F.K. as the television president. I’ve got a lot of great stuff in the book on J.F.K., but even more fascinating to me was Eisenhower trying to master television. People don’t think of him as the TV president, but from day one, a lot of his closest advisers were from the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, some were from Hollywood. Robert Montgomery, who became the first White House TV coach with an office in the West Wing, he was a former actor, and the father of Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched.

So they are trying to help Eisenhower figure out what to do. At first, he’s terrible, he’s awkward, he’s bumbling, but by the end of his presidency, he’s actually pretty good. Eisenhower gives some very memorable and effective primetime Oval Office addresses — about the Little Rock integration crisis; about Sputnik, when the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite. By the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, he’s actually fairly good with television for someone who was born in the 19th century, and not a natural with the new medium.

I think we’ve seen the same thing with the Internet. It was there for Clinton and Bush and they didn’t really do much with it. Obama is really the first one to sort of figure out that this is a tool for reaching voters and viewers who are not watching television, who are not listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, and to try to get at them through other angles.

Knowledge@Wharton: And they want to see it packaged in about a five-minute window, so that they can either watch it quickly when they get to the office, or they’re watching it and listening to it on the train. People’s lives are so rushed these days they don’t have time to sit down and watch a 30-minute newscast anymore.

Greenberg: Right, and so they’re happy to get it in these snippets. Now I think, again, people are usually savvy enough to know if it’s a White House video feed, there’s going to be another side of the story. But people feel, “Well, why should I get it filtered through someone else if I can get it straight from the source?”

Knowledge@Wharton: Who were the presidents who were not able to pull off spin the way that the really good ones could?

Greenberg: There are actually a number of them, but what’s interesting is that some of the ones who we remember as failures with spin actually originally were hailed as being very good at it. I’ll give you an example: Herbert Hoover, when he first runs for president, is described by all of the pundits as kind of a modern genius with publicity. He has the first ever campaign film – it’s called “Masters of Emergency” — that shows him when he was commerce secretary, tending to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was the worst natural disaster in the U.S. until Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s not that presidents who were good at spin are remembered as great presidents, it’s presidents who achieve big things are remembered as good spinners.”

Then when he’s president, he gets the Great Depression, and nothing he can do in the way of spin can help him at all, because he doesn’t have the policies. He even hires Edward Bernays, who is considered the father of American public relations; he was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. And he puts Bernays on this committee to try to figure out a PR spin to get people to buy more.

It doesn’t go anywhere, and Bernays eventually says, “Look, I’m not a magician. You need a jobs program.” So underneath the spin failures, most of the time, I would say, are policy failures. When presidents say, “Oh, the problem was my messaging, my marketing,” usually — not all of the time, but usually — that is a cover story for policies that aren’t resonating.

Knowledge@Wharton: With the Internet age, Obama has kind of really maximized what he has been able to do with that medium. Why was it, though, that Clinton and Bush and Bush were not able to maximize it in the same way?

Greenberg: Well, for one thing, they didn’t quite need to yet. They were still operating in an age that was dominated by television. I mean, it’s hard to remember now, because things have changed so quickly, but …

Knowledge@Wharton: Especially with Clinton. I would have thought that President Clinton would have been all over it at the time.

Greenberg: Right, and there are times where you see the Internet playing a role. Matt Drudge and the Drudge Report, sort of putting out the Lewinski scandal, and then getting it to be picked up by the mainstream media — for the first time, you start to see the Internet’s influence. But instead, what Clinton and Bush do are things that I think are forerunners of the Obama techniques.

If Clinton realized he was getting a lot of grief from the Washington press corps, the folks who were gathered everyday in the White House pressroom, he liked to do these satellite interviews. He would go around to lots of local stations where he would get — I won’t call them softball questions, but friendlier questioning. If he wanted to launch a new policy initiative, that was a much better way to go, to reach people in Cleveland or Tulsa or Seattle, than trying to burst through the mainstream Washington media.

Bush did events with talkers. He had right-wing talk radio day on the White House lawn. Clinton, for promoting efforts against climate change, did an initiative with the Weather Channel. So they were starting to realize you don’t have to just go through the big three networks; there are other ways to reach niche audiences. It’s really only in the Obama era that that makes the leap to the Internet.

“[Reagan] had a certain touch. But he also could be really bad in communicating at times. When he was off the cuff, he botched facts.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Compare and contrast Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Greenberg: That’s a great contrast because, again, going to my point about Hoover, it’s not that presidents who were good at spin are remembered as great presidents, it’s presidents who achieve big things are remembered as good spinners. I was shocked when I went back and looked at Jimmy Carter, and how in 1976 during his campaign, and into 1977, he was described as a master of the media. I know, hard to believe.

He had Pat Caddell, this wunderkind pollster, he had Gerry Rafshoon, kind of the slickest consultants. There was a New York Times Magazine cover that shows a cartoon of Carter in this television control room with ABC, CBS, NBC, and he’s kind of pulling all the switches.

And then the economy tanks, there’s the hostage crisis, Russians invade Afghanistan, Carter’s policies are completely ineffective, and then the media operation starts unraveling too. Gerry Rafshoon, who is his consultant – the media even come up with a name for spin, calling it Rafshoonery. Everything he does – they see it as another one of Gerry Rafshoon’s tricks to try to take our attention away from the economy.

Reagan, in a way, had the opposite benefit. He is remembered as the great communicator, and certainly he could deliver a terrific speech. He had a certain touch. But he also could be really bad in communicating at times. When he was off the cuff, he botched facts. “Trees are responsible for most of our air pollution.” Sugar Ray Leonard and his wife come to the White House, he welcomes Sugar Ray and Mrs. Ray. I mean, he’s just always off when he’s speaking off the cuff. People wondered if he could think straight, and so they kind of started containing him, and making sure they had everything from the visuals and the optics to the words all mapped out. Then, he could be effective. The real reason I think he remains popular, and his stock has risen, is that he helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

Knowledge@Wharton:  Now we have a candidate who prefers to speak off the cuff, and a lot of times it gets him in trouble.

Greenberg: Right. What’s interesting with Trump is, for the early part of his campaign, that spontaneity, that unfiltered quality, was really a large part of his appeal, and I think to a lot of people it still is. But as is often the case, that only gets you so far. Then you start making gaffes, you start running into the limits of your policy knowledge.

A great example was that Trump, until early this year, would never walk back a statement or apologize, even if he knew it would alienate key Republican voters. He felt standing his ground was more important. But then there were a few instances — when he said he would default on the national debt – he had to walk that back. He said he would punish women for having abortions — had to walk that back. So you start seeing Trump be more like a regular politician in terms of calculating what he’s going to say, as opposed to that earlier behavior. You still see plenty of the crazy, unfiltered Trump at work, but he’s modified.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you compare Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump?

Greenberg: I think Hillary Clinton’s great weakness is her fear of making a gaffe, her fear of going off-script. She is very controlled, and in many ways that’s a virtue: She’s thoughtful, she thinks through what she wants to say. But it often comes off as insufficiently spontaneous, insufficiently warm and human…. Maybe that doesn’t make someone the most appealing television personality, but it can be a strong skill in governing.

Knowledge@Wharton: Obviously, we are so linked together in the Internet age, it’s a little harder for politicians to get stuff past the public because of how the media is, and because there’s so much more media. Can you start to look in your crystal ball a little bit and say how it might change politics going forward?

Greenberg: I think the easiest thing to say about the future, which is usually wrong, is that it’s going to be like the present, only more so. The tempting answer is to say that since the Bill Clinton presidency, we have been experiencing increasingly polarized times. Clinton impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the Iraq War, the Obama presidency, and now, Republicans have their worldview, Democrats have theirs, and never the twain shall meet.

In the past, there have been periods like this when external events actually started changing the way we think about the other party, and the way we think about communication. The Depression and World War II really changed things a lot. Coming out of World War I, we were very suspicious of official communication as propaganda. But FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] and his fireside chats broke through that; he helped people trust in the presidency again.

So it’s very hard to say what’s going to come along next. I think for the short run, we’re in for this kind of trench warfare between two ideological camps, and maybe even three or four ideological camps, as you see a hard left wing of the Democrats getting more vocal, and the populist right wing getting more vocal. How any of these groups will find agreement with each other is going to be an enormous challenge for the next president.

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