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From Teddy to Trump: Tracing the roots of the presidency as PR

A new book traces more than a century of changes on what kind of “spin” was acceptable under the ever-changing norms of presidential politics.

Even the 30-second attack ad or the seven-second soundbite seem like a Shakespeare play compared to a typical tweet from Donald Trump.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

My view of politics was permanently altered long ago by Neal Postman’s great 1984 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he demonstrated how television was shortening our attention spans and strengthening our addiction to entertainment values over substance, even in so important a matter as choosing a president.

But even the 30-second attack ad or the seven-second soundbite (both of which Postman decried) seem like a Shakespeare play compared to a typical tweet from Donald Trump. The “messaging” (a word that didn’t exist until recently, and that we were fine without) of a presidential candidate sometimes seems to get dumber and more insulting every cycle. Or maybe it’s that it gets cleverer and more effective.

Some of that is driven by new technologies but also by a constant lowering of the standards of what a presidential wannabe can do and still seem sufficiently “presidential” to become president.

It’s easy, and tempting, to romanticize the past, which is not my goal today. But I’ve just finished reading one of the many good books timed for a presidential election year. This one reminds us how the ever-changing frontiers of communication and political norms make each presidential cycle different but, seemingly, always moving in the same manipulative direction.

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It’s called “Republic of Spin,” by professor David Greenberg, who professes on politics, history, media studies and journalism at Rutgers University. Those four interests combine for a book that traces more than a century of changes on what kind of “spin” was acceptable and practiced under the ever-changing norms of presidential politics since the age of Teddy Roosevelt.

Since Greenberg decided to start with Teddy — a transformative figure in the history of presidential spin — I will just tell you from my own history obsession that from the time of George Washington until roughly the William Jennings Bryan campaign of 1896, presidents and presidential candidates didn’t campaign at all, at least not in the sense of running around the country giving speeches, making promises and begging for votes.

Old norms

The old norms of American politics required that candidates maintain their dignity, stay home, maybe occasionally greet visitors who came to their homes and offer them a sip of cider on the lawn, and make no promises. The pose was mostly phony of course, but a preference for modesty and dignity weren’t all bad.

But there are so, so many things that we think of as normal today that are relatively recent inventions, and my knowledge of who started what and when was dramatically improved by Greenberg’s book.

Teddy was a breakthrough, in part because he was just so out there, communicating with the public, cultivating journalists. His public profile grew so large that he was denounced by senators for violating the intended constitutional balance of power which, in the view of the critics, required the president to be a much more passive figure, waiting for Congress to act. Roosevelt, for example, was the first president to maintain on his staff anyone whose job it was to deal with reporters.

Woodrow Wilson, shyer and much less of a glad hander, nonetheless was the first president in more than a century to deliver a State of the Union address. Washington and Adams had given a speech to Congress, but the painfully shy Jefferson, noting that the Constitution requires only that the president “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union,” sent his SOTU messages in writing.

All following presidents did the same until Wilson revived the idea of addressing a joint session of Congress. (Of course, it wasn’t on TV or even radio, but the newspapers covered it, even while Wilson was denounced for his self-aggrandizement. One such critic called Wilson’s horrible decision to speak to Congress “the speech from the throne.”)

Wilson also was the first president to experiment with something called a “press conference.” While Roosevelt had spoken to and buddied up to the reporters, Wilson started the actual press conference as a weekly event, although he came to dread the task and complained that the reporters didn’t care enough about substance. We’ve heard that one plenty of times since.

Wilson’s successor, Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, was considered a very handsome man. (I’m no expert, but I confess I’ve never seen it.) He was believed to have benefitted greatly from his good looks, the first candidate for president in which handsomeness was a big deal. The age of movie stars was dawning and Harding was the first to get endorsements from stars of stage and screen. Al Jolson sang a jingle titled “Harding, You’re the Man for Us!” Harding was the first president to employ a full-time speechwriter. Most presidents before that, believe it or don’t, wrote their own speeches.

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The next president, Calvin (Silent Cal) Coolidge, despite being famously a man of few words in normal conversation, nonetheless used the still fairly new medium of radio to broadcast his State of the Union message, making him the first president ever to reach a mass national audience. (This has more to do with the invention of radio than with Coolidge’s exploitation of it.)

Coolidge (again, playing against our stereotype of him) upped the frequency of press conferences to a staggering two a week but — this is very weird by today’s standards — all reporters’ questions had to be submitted in writing in advance, and the answers were off the record or had to be attributed to a “White House spokesman,” even though the spokesman was the president himself.

Next comes Herbert Hoover, the first president to have a full-time press secretary and also the first president to commission polls, although the techniques of polling were a far cry from today’s. (Think about the difficulty of polling when most people didn’t even have phones yet.)

FDR, as you know, made unprecedentedly successful use of radio, and his use pollsters set a new high. For example, he was worried about a third-party challenge from the left, probably featuring either Louisianan Huey Long or Father Coughlin (the radio priest), and commissioned a poll to see how much of a threat they might be to his reelection.

I’ve always found it strange that much of the public never saw a picture of FDR in a wheelchair, although it’s less clear whether many Americans thought Roosevelt could walk. (He could sort of walk a few steps, with his legs in braces, and clutching the arm of an aide or one of his sons.)

You probably know that in most recent presidential cycles, the single biggest cost of most campaigns had been for TV advertising. And, obviously, that wasn’t so before the 1950s, the decade when TV ownership proliferated.

In the 1952 campaign, advisers to both nominees, Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson, apparently said no, at first, to the kind of pandering and show-biz values that were not consistent with the job of president or even presidential candidate. Then Ike caved, and before long so did Stevenson. So in 1952, political TV advertising was born.

The ads themselves are hilariously bad, to our more sophisticated eyes. If you have a minute, this link will get you a glimpse of just how bad. And you can’t exactly blame the brave pioneers in merchandising democracy who made them. But Washington and Lincoln would surely have turned in their graves.

Ike won, of course, because, as the slogan so brilliantly argued, “I Like Ike.” Which works better than the alternative, which, in case you don’t know, was “Madly for Adlai.”

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As president, in 1955, Ike was the first to have a press conference on TV, although on a tape-delayed basis. His successor, John Kennedy, took the next step and had the first live broadcast of a presidential press conference.

Kennedy-Nixon TV debate

JFK’s 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon is rightfully famous for the televised debates. And it’s true, as you have probably heard before, that polls showed Nixon won the debates among those who listened on the radio while Kennedy won among those who watched on TV.

Kennedy’s close bond with the pollster Lou Harris, who was essentially a member of his inner circle of advisers, marks the big leap up in the importance of polling. But it was JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who signed a permanent contract agreement with a polling firm, so he could take fresh poll results into account in every important decision he made.

The 1968 campaign, marked by Nixon’s comeback and — as detailed in Joe McGinnis’ famous book, “The Selling of the Presidency, 1968” — was the first to cross the next barrier: A campaign in which men drawn from the advertising and public-relations industries were the candidate’s core advisers, bringing the logic of those businesses ever deeper into the day-to-day running of a campaign and then into the day-to-day decision-making in the Oval Office.  “In the modern presidency,” Nixon would write in his memoirs, “concern for image must rank with concern for substance.” Hard to put things more plainly than that.

Jimmy Carter’s close adviser Gerald Rafshoon was quoted in 1977 thus: “All politics is marketing… The presidency has become an ongoing series for television.”

So what could be a more logical next step than to have the next president after Carter be someone who had made his living as a movie actor and as host of TV’s “Death Valley Days.” That, of course, would be Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s PR team took spin to a new level, deciding that every day, the White House must feature a line or a story of the day that could be spoon-fed to the news media.

Greenberg’s last chapter deals with the Obama years and brings the story almost full circle. From the days when a trusting public was relatively easily manipulated by each breakthrough in the evolution of spin, we end the tale with a public that, quite reasonably, views everything as spin and never turns its collective b.s. detector off. During the last few years, writes Greenberg:

“What changed… was the discourse about spin itself. From the Progressive Era to the debate about the invasion of Iraq, spin’s detractors feared that the power of the mass media would give presidents too much power to persuade the public. Under Obama, the fear took a different form: Not that the president could persuade the public of whatever he wished, but that no one would be able to persuade anyone of anything.”

Is that where we are?