Rutgers professor’s new book explores the history of spin – from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama – and what it has meant for American democracy

In his new book, The Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (Norton 2016), David Greenberg tells us that spin – the art of shaping the public’s perception of the message and the image – is inherent in politics.

“My underlying argument is that, for all our criticism of spin, what we really don’t like is spin from the other side,” says Greenberg, professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences and journalism and media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers. “If the politicians are spinning policies we like, we call it persuasive argument or inspiring argument. It’s the other guy’s spin we don’t like.”

Greenberg recounts the rise of the White House spin machine, describing the gradual accumulation of spin doctors in the White House, and  the criticism of the practice.  Every administration has been accused of trying to manage the news, distract the voters, and undermine democracy with its spin. But he also chronicles the public’s growing awareness of spin, and spin’s limitations.

He begins with Theodore Roosevelt. “What really changes with TR is that the presidency becomes the seat of policymaking,” Greenberg says. “He has a more active conception of the office than his predecessors. During most of the 19th century, Congress drove the policy agenda. But TR wants to reform capitalism; he wants America to play a major role in the world. He wants the president to be driving policy, and he needs to use the mass media to do that.”

No president since has been immune to the temptations of spin, Greenberg says, or exempt from its imperatives. Woodrow Wilson, who shared Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of an active presidency, established the first American government propaganda agency during World War I, the Committee on Public Information. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Barack Obama were advised by public relations consultants, social psychologists and advertising men, even though they didn’t always take their advice. Even the dour Calvin Coolidge was attentive to public opinion, and listened to such advisers as advertising executive Bruce Barton to help him cultivate it. “In public life it is sometimes necessary, in order to appear really natural, to be actually artificial,” Greenberg quotes Coolidge as saying.

David Greenberg, associate professor of history, journalism and media studies, author of The Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency

If there is a master communicator in Greenberg’s book, a president who understood the mass media of his time and embraced it, that communicator is Franklin D. Roosevelt. He shared the vision of an activist presidency that inspired his cousin Theodore and Wilson, but he made it personal with his radio “fireside chats.” Greenberg quotes an FDR admirer who wrote to the president after his first chat. “Earlier presidents were just pictures to look at … But you are real,” she wrote. “I know your voice, what you are trying to do.”

John F. Kennedy, who instituted regular, live televised news conferences, is remembered as a media-savvy president, Greenberg notes. But it’s Kennedy’s old nemesis, Richard Nixon, who created the image-making machinery that is now standard in every administration, including the White House Office of Communications itself.  “Nixon was obsessed with image,” Greenberg says. “When there was a new policy to be launched, he had his staff build huge ‘game plans,’ involving several White House offices and government organizations, with a depth and thoroughness that went way beyond anything Kennedy and Johnson did.”

The public’s increasing awareness of spin, however, meant people became more suspicious the more he spun. And the more his efforts were greeted with suspicion, the more furiously Nixon tried to spin. Try as they might, presidents can’t spin failure and bad decisions for long, Greenberg believes.

 “Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter were all hailed, at one time or another, as wizards of manipulation,” he says. “But the skills they had shown earlier couldn’t salvage bad policies.”