From William McKinley to Barack Obama, a prizewinning historian looks at the tortured marriage of public relations and the modern presidency.
Woodrow Wilson loathed all the “ ‘campaign mummery’ of shaking hands and sweet-talking supporters.” Adlai Stevenson called merchandising candidates for high office “the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” Both can blame Theodore Roosevelt for transforming the presidency and for recognizing the power of “the bully pulpit” to shape and mobilize public opinion. Since Roosevelt, all aspirants to and occupants of the Oval Office have taken elaborate pains to construct and nourish their public images, carefully crafting their own versions of events and presenting them to voters as “truth-telling” or “transparency.” Opponents reliably label their efforts as mere publicity, advertising, ballyhoo, news management, propaganda, or, in today’s fashionable locution, “spin.” Greenberg (History/Rutgers Univ.; Calvin Coolidge, 2006, etc.) cruises chronologically through more than 100 years of spin, packing his narrative with minibios and sharp commentary on the journalists, pundits, and intellectuals who’ve closely observed the spin machine through the years. He chronicles the succession of speechwriters, press secretaries, pollsters, admen, consultants, TV gurus, and campaign managers, each of whom gave the machine a distinctive whirl. And, of course, he assesses the presidents, gold-standard spinners like FDR, JFK, and Reagan, chief executives who were surprisingly good at it—Coolidge, Truman—some who were surprisingly bad—Harding, Wilson—and some, like Hoover, Johnson, and Carter, whose presidencies began well and then spun out of control. As Greenberg chronicles the evolution of spin, noting the technological innovations that have caused the machine to revolve ever faster, piling up colorful, informative stories about the notable spinmasters, charting the dizzying effect of the constant campaign and the supercharged executive on the voters, readers will wonder whether to cry at the implications for our republic or to simply laugh at the spectacle of it all.
At once scholarly, imaginative, and great fun.