To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Rutgers professor discusses new book on political spin

Political spinning plays a significant role in American politics, but that was not always the case. Since President Theodore Roosevelt, politicians have used “spin” in ways that both help and hinder our democracy, according to David Greenberg, associate professor of History and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University, who came to speak at Brandeis on Thursday.

Greenberg’s most recent book, “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency” details the history of political spinning. Greenberg read from a passage in his book, describing spin: “Over many decades now, elected officials and their aides have forged a huge arsenal of tools and techniques to shape their messages, their images, and our thinking,” he said. “From the White House on down, every politician of note boasts a brigade of speech writers, press secretaries, campaign consultants, media gurus, handlers, holsters, hucksters, flacks, hacks and other assorted spin-meisters to ensure that each utterance and pose is rendered in the best achievable light.”

Greenberg’s book is split into three sections: how the presidents (beginning with Theodore Roosevelt) contributed to the White House spin machine, how “spin doctors” contributed and how critics (such as writers, intellectuals and journalists) contributed.

Greenberg said his goal was to “understand the roots of the spin machine … How did this whole army of speech writers and pollsters and media gurus become such a central part of what every politician does?”

Greenberg also discussed how spin is viewed in our current society as a result of its history, as something negative used to mislead the public.

“The growth of spin has given rise to a series of now-familiar complaints. We hear that our politics are phony and corrupt, that our leaders are packaged and unprincipled, that their rhetoric is shallow and poll-tested, that even the most important political events—debates, conventions, speeches, interviews, press briefings—are scripted, staged and choreographed,” he said.

“Worse, we hear spin misleads or deceives us. Even if it’s disbelieved, it chokes off the honest and open discourse our democracy needs.”

Greenberg continued to discuss how people have been wary of political spinning for years. Vance Packard, a journalist who reported and wrote during the 1940s and 50s, worried as he watched spin develop that democracy was in peril “because of these new techniques of spin,” said Greenberg. Packard’s worries are still echoed by the public today.

Greenberg argued, however, that “the answer is not to deplore spin and somehow declare our democracy bankrupt … but to try to help us understand how it works, to expose the fictions, to see how it plays on us and how we can better understand it.”

In writing a history of spin, this is exactly Greenberg’s goal: that people will better understand spin and realize it does not always have to be a bad thing. “I think that’s an important point to realize about spin; we sometimes deplore it, but underneath we can also see that it has its virtues when it’s in the service of a cause … We know that it can be used for misleading, and we can think of times when that’s happened, but we sometimes forget that it can also be used for leading. For misleading and for leading,” he said. Spin can be used to promote good causes. It does not have to be used to defame opponents or stretch the truth.

“And it’s that dual nature of spin, and that ambivalent attitude we have for spin and its role in our democracy that I think is really at the heart of this book, and the story of the presidents and the spin doctors and the critics and intellectuals who have constituted this conversation over the last hundred or so years,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg’s book is available now for purchase. He is also the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” which won the American Journalism History Award, Columbia University’s Bancroft Dissertation Award and the Washington Monthly Annual Political Book Award. Thursday’s event was sponsored by the American Studies Department.

Get Our Stories Sent To Your Inbox

Skip to content