America’s First Minister of Propaganda

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tags: propaganda, George Creel



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press this fall. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

As America’s campaign intensifies, it is depressing yet reassuring to remember the contrast between campaign slogans and governing policies. Depressing, because we seem surprised to discover again and again that a politician’s promise is as reliable as a weather report—not always off but rarely precise. Reassuring, because many politicians often discard campaign trail idiocies with their buttons and bunting.

Woodrow Wilson’s campaign one century ago confirms the Grand Canyon-wide gap between campaigning and governing. In 1916, Wilson promised Americans peace despite Europe’s Great War with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” By 1917, America entered into that very war. The man Wilson turned to, to turn American public opinion around, was the long-forgotten George Creel, America’s first and perhaps still best, unofficial Secretary of Propaganda.

The Communists and the Nazis—who admired Creel—made propaganda so disreputable it long besmirched Creel’s reputation as a sleazy schemer. In fact, Creel was a high-minded reporter back when journalism was particularly dishonorable, and a patriot trying to save democracy not just peddle whatever lies a fickle public would swallow.

The son of a drunk whose family descended from slavery-fueled wealth during plantation days to post-Civil War poverty, Creel was born in still-war-ravaged Missouri in 1876. “Our poverty brought us close,” he would remember, speaking of his family, “for love was all we had to give one another, and the determination to justify [my mother’s] sacrifices and hopes developed ambitions.” Seeing his mother function as his father floundered led Creel to champion women’s rights:  “I knew my mother had more character, brains, and competence than any man that ever lived.”

Creel started writing for the Kansas City World in 1898. These times would inspire the Pulitzer Prize-winning, cliché-creating The Front Page Reporters relished being badly dressed and badly behaved truth tellers revealing the bad behavior of the well-dressed and not-so-well-dressed alike. Creel became an investigative journalist, a “muckraker,” but he lacked the stomach for the yellow journalists’ hit jobs. His first boss fired him for refusing to embarrass a local businessman by exposing the man’s daughter’s affair with her dad’s employee. ...





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