The History of Spin

Bill Simmons recently asked President Obama what he would tell himself if he could go back to 2008. Here is his answer:

…somehow in those first two years, I think a certain arrogance crept in, in the sense of thinking as long as we get the policy ready, we didn’t have to sell it.

I thought of that immediately when I read Joshua Green’s review of the book Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency by David Greenberg in the current issue of the Washington Monthly. In it, we learn some of the history of how it became the job of the president to “sell it.” Apparently it all began with Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt arrived at the White House fully intending to be an activist president and thought that appealing directly to the public by utilizing the tools of publicity would allow him to supersede Congress. This approach was new: the executive branch had typically bowed to the legislative. Roosevelt pioneered many of the techniques presidents still employ: the “bully pulpit,” the press conference, the Friday news dump, the professional staff of press handlers to push the White House message, the sound bite (“I try to put the whole truth in each sentence,” he told Steffens), the presidential trip as a publicity mechanism to promote policy. He was also adept at the older practice of bringing favored reporters into his confidence to elicit better coverage. It all worked for him. “The presidency has given to Mr. Roosevelt a far-reaching, megaphone-like Voice,” wrote one White House correspondent, “raucous and strident indeed, but of high purpose, like the prophets of old.” Roosevelt set a mold that every president after him has tried to follow.

So something that started with Roosevelt has now become accepted as part of the job description – to the point that President Obama has often been criticized for not using things like the “bully pulpit” effectively enough.

Green takes a different view.

Voters today have become so adept at reading the language of advertisement and propaganda that political spin often backfires. It marks the perpetrator, rather than the target, as the overmanaged phony and produces the opposite of the intended effect.

I suspect that some of the difference has to do with how one defines “spin.” When Bill O’Reilly titles his program on Fox News “the no-spin zone,” the word has been distorted beyond measure. Reading Green’s review helps put some of that back in its historical perspective. That’s what makes it so timely.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .