A Century of Political Spin

tags: politics, Political Spin

Dr. Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. This essay is adapted from “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency,” to be published Monday by W.W. Norton.

... Since Theodore Roosevelt’s day, when candidates began campaigning for votes and presidents started regularly courting the public, politicians have been refining the tools and techniques of what we now call spin. Spin turns out to be woven into the fabric of American politics, and though it is hardly an unmixed good, it is inseparable from many of the signature achievements of our greatest leaders. 

Consider the presidential press conference, an institution so familiar today that no one thinks twice about it. But it began as a political gambit. 

When he became president in 1901, the spotlight-loving Teddy Roosevelt realized that news coverage was changing. Newspapers had once targeted elite audiences loyal to a paper’s editorial line; now big-city dailies claimed millions of readers hungry for news. TR realized that by providing the news, he could shape it.

Roosevelt cultivated journalists relentlessly. He befriended them, learned details about their families and sent personal notes that dripped with flattery. But Roosevelt’s main vehicle was the press conference—“séances,” as they came to be called. 

Typically Roosevelt would ask a half-dozen reporters to join him in the afternoon in a small room off his office. There, a Treasury Department messenger would shave the president as he served up a mix of politics, policy and gossip. The excitable Roosevelt would often spring out of his armchair, lather flying off his face, to lecture the newsmen, who were barely able to squeeze in a word, let alone a question. The muckraking reporter Lincoln Steffens, a regular guest, would let Roosevelt ramble until the barber’s razor skimmed his lower lip, forcing it shut; then the journalist would fire his queries as the wriggling president was stilled by the barber’s admonition, “Steady, Mr. President.” ...

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