The Evolution Of The White House Spin Machine
Teddy Roosevelt had the first White House Press Secretary. President Obama has the first presidential Twitter account. Historian and Rutgers University professor David Greenberg discusses the evolution of the White House spin machine with Here & Now’s Robin Young.
Greenberg is author of the new book “Republic of Spin: An Inside History Of The American Presidency,” which chronicles how the White House political spin machine began in the era of Teddy Roosevelt, but has grown and changed over the past century. He wonders whether the spinmasters are tearing up their playbooks now that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to follow one.
This conversation was recorded at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Book Excerpt: ‘Republic Of Spin’
Theodore Roosevelt and the Public Presidency
When President William McKinley led the United States to war against Spain in the spring of 1898, the nation sprang into action, and no one was keener to see battle than Theodore Roosevelt.1 Scion of an upper-crust New York family, the brash assistant Navy secretary had, at thirty-nine, already built a reputation as a reformer as a New York state assemblyman and as Gotham’s police commissioner. Lately, from his perch in the Navy Department, he had been planning, and agitating, for an all-out confrontation with the dying Spanish Empire. He drew up schemes for deploying the American fleet, which he had helped strengthen, in not only the Caribbean, where Spain ruled a restive Cuba, but also the Pacific, where it held the Philippines. After the deadly February explosion of the USS Maine off Cuba’s shores, Roosevelt shared with journalists his firm but mistaken conviction that the Spanish were to blame. “Being a Jingo,” he wrote a friend, using the slang for war hawk, “I would give anything if President McKinley would order the fleet to Havana tomorrow.” Privately, he mocked his president, who was trying to negotiate a solution: “McKinley is bent on peace, I fear.”2
In April, after some provocations, McKinley bowed to pressure and opted for war. Roosevelt resolved not to validate the sneers of his detractors that he was just playing at combat. “My power for good, whatever it may be, would be gone if I didn’t try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach,” he told a friend. Newspaper editorialists called on him to remain at the Navy Department, where they said his expertise was needed. But TR quit his desk job, secured a commission as a lieutenant colonel, and set up a training ground in San Antonio, Texas. Along with his friend Leonard Wood, the president’s doctor, he readied for battle a motley regiment of Ivy League footballers and polo players, cowboys and roughnecks. Roosevelt telegrammed Brooks Brothers for an “ordinary cavalry lieutenant-colonel’s uniform in blue Cravenette.”3
As competitive as he was patriotic, Roosevelt meant for his men to vanquish the Spanish. But he also wanted them to seize their countrymen’s imagination, with himself in the lead. The new mass media would provide his means.4 Photographers and journalists swarmed the Texas camp, where a sign on the gate said, “All Civilians, Except Reporters, Prohibited from Camp.” Some journalists called them “Teddy’s Terrors,” even though Wood was the unit’s commander—testament to Roosevelt’s ability to hijack the headlines. Reporter Richard Oulahan dubbed them the “Rough Riders,” enhancing the group’s mystique.5
Publicity-hungry, TR wrote to Robert Bridges, the editor of Scribner’s magazine, offering him “first chance” to publish six installments of a (planned) first-person account of his (planned) war exploits—a preview of what would be a full-blown book and, in Roosevelt’s humble assessment, a “permanent historical work.” Bridges accepted. Once TR set off for Cuba, he made sure that his favorite reporters—notably, the daring, dashing Richard Harding Davis—joined him. And although the boat that left Tampa, Florida, was too small to fit all the Rough Riders comfortably, TR insisted that they make room for a passel of journalists. One account, probably apocryphal, had him ushering on board two motion picture cameramen from Thomas Edison’s Vitagraph Company.6
Roosevelt focused on how the war was covered as much as on how it was fought. Journalists had been writing with feverish interest about the Cuban uprising since it began in 1895. Playing on, and playing up, American sympathy for the Cubans, the mass circulation newspapers and magazines, led by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, avidly covered the rebellion. When war came, some 500 reporters, editors, illustrators, and photographers streamed to Florida. They included the novelists Stephen Crane and Frank Norris, the artist Frederic Remington, the Russian adventurer George Kennan (uncle of the future Cold War diplomat), the future Democratic Party publicist Charles Michelson, and even the showboating Hearst himself. Many climbed aboard Navy vessels bound for Cuba and Puerto Rico. Western Union telegraph cables connecting Havana with Key West, and hence the whole of the United States, would relay battlefront news with unprecedented speed. The clash was called “The Correspondents’ War.”
To this journalistic flotilla, the charismatic Roosevelt was an obvious draw. When he charged into combat at the Battle of Las Guásimas, Richard Harding Davis, on assignment for the New York Herald and Scribner’s, and Edward Marshall, of Hearst’s Journal, marched alongside him; Stephen Crane, whom TR disliked, was consigned to the rear. A week later, when Roosevelt led the advance up Kettle Hill as part of the larger Battle of San Juan Hill, the embedded journalists recorded his courage for readers back home. Though Roosevelt’s bravery was by all accounts genuine, the precise nature of his exploits would prove controversial: he boasted that he had initiated the Kettle Hill charge, whereas some witnesses credited Charles Taylor, a captain. No one, however, disputed that Roosevelt hurried to the front and led the way up the slope. In any case, his leadership beguiled the press. Davis’s account was particularly florid. He described Roosevelt speeding into combat with “a blue polka-dot handkerchief” around his sombrero—“without doubt the most conspicuous figure in the charge. . . . Mounted high on horseback and charging the rifle-pits at a gallop and quite alone, he made you feel that you would like to cheer.” Others inflated Roosevelt’s heroics, crediting him with taking San Juan Hill proper rather than its smaller neighbor—a substitution TR would come to make as well. The legend endured, and grew. A few years later, the Russian painter Vasili Vereshchagin would portray TR in full glory at San Juan and exhibit his work at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.7
Newsreels, too, seared Roosevelt’s heroism into the public mind. Although Albert E. Smith’s films of the assault on San Juan Hill appear to be inauthentic, the Rough Riders’ more quotidian activities did make it into cinemas. Despite the pedestrian actions on screen, audiences lapped up shorts like Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at Drill, which captured the troops’ early steps toward war. They took in as well films like Raising Old Glory Over Morro Castle, even though the American flag that the film depicted had been hoisted by actors on a Manhattan rooftop. Some of the anonymous, valorous grunts in the Cuban battles resented TR’s publicity, but it made the young lieutenant colonel, as the New York World wrote, “more talked about than any man in the country.”8
Within weeks, what Roosevelt’s friend John Hay called the “splendid little war” in Cuba was over. That fall, basking in the hype, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. Two years later, almost as predictably, he was chosen vice president of the United States. And when a gunman took McKinley’s life in September 1901, the American presidency had, in this forty-two-year-old gamecock, its first full-fledged celebrity.
Theodore Roosevelt was born for the spotlight. “One cannot think of him except as part of the public scene, performing on the public stage,” wrote the philosopher John Dewey, who was Roosevelt’s junior by one year and an unlikely enthusiast. Many Americans, to be sure, found it hard to stomach Roosevelt’s antics. Mark Twain saw TR as one of his own parodic creations come to life, a juvenile, showboating ham, “the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century.” H. L. Mencken similarly bridled at TR’s grandiosity. “What moved him was simply a craving for facile and meaningless banzais, for the gaudy eminence and power of the leader of a band of lynchers, for the mean admiration of mean men.” Woodrow Wilson, once an admirer, came to regard TR as “the monumental fakir of history.”
To Dewey, all of this was carping. Roosevelt was merely succeeding on the terms of his age. “To criticize Roosevelt for love of the camera and the headline is childish,” the philosopher wrote, “unless we recognize that in such criticism we are condemning the very conditions of any public success during this period.” Dewey tolerated Roosevelt’s grandstanding, which he considered a prerequisite for achievement in the new century. As the journalist Henry Stoddard explained, the plutocrats of the Gilded Age had come to wield so much economic and political influence that it would have been futile for TR to try to fight them with “soft stepping and whispered persuasion.” Only a head-on assault would do.9
The endless attention Roosevelt got was not unmerited. His talents were such that he made a mark in almost every endeavor he tried, from writing history to exploring the Amazon and from politics to war. He could claim distinction as a Harvard graduate and a cowboy, soldier and athlete, hunter and biographer, journalist and conservationist, student of law and champion of science, state assemblyman and police commissioner, reformist governor and unshackled campaigner, and the youngest man to become president. His intellect was partly responsible for these achievements; the English writer H. G. Wells credited him with “the most vigorous brain in a conspicuously responsible position in all the world.” But the mainspring of Roosevelt’s success was his preternatural self-confidence. Seldom did he betray uncertainty about his ability to meet a task, whether finishing a manuscript, ramming a bill through Congress, or jawboning a visitor into accepting his view.
TR fancied himself above all a man of action. With typical theatricality, he proclaimed the moral superiority of “the man . . . in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” He insisted on the need for political change in industrial-age America; just as vehemently, he scorned the genteel idealism of the “silk stocking” types, as he called his era’s upper-class reformers, who were his natural allies. But his vigor and self-possession had their drawbacks. Impatient with the faint of heart, Roosevelt mistook ambivalence for weakness. “I don’t care how honest a man is,” he asserted, “if he is timid he is no good.” His glee often gave way to bluster, and the moralism that served as a wellspring of reform also produced an ugly faith in the superiority of his own race, class, and sex to rule. He justified the conquest of the West and America’s assumption of lands in the Pacific in nakedly racist terms.10
Most associates forgave these flaws, some of them capitulating to his overpowering charisma. “You go to the White House, you shake hands with Roosevelt and hear him talk,” wrote the journalist Richard Washburn Child, “and then go home to wring the personality out of your clothes.” Roosevelt’s allure seemed to inhere in his very visage. His iconic profile would remain as vivid decades after his death as it was to his contemporaries. His stocky, muscular physique revealed a lifelong obsession with the manly virtues of strength and athleticism. His pale blue eyes, squinting behind thick-lensed pince-nez, conveyed an irrepressible drive. And his gleaming rows of teeth, flashing from below the thick, drooping mustache—“very white, and almost as big as a colt’s teeth,” wrote Arthur Brisbane of Pulitzer’s World—lit up his ruddy face in a glow of joy or menace. They could frighten people when he worked his will, or amuse them when he laughed his high-pitched cackle. “Probably the thing that has saved Roosevelt is his laugh,” wrote his friend and admirer William Allen White, the famed editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. “Time and again he has punctured the cant and sophistry of an argumentative statesman with a twinkling grin and a gurgling, ‘Oh, come now, Senator!’ ”11
Then there was the sense of movement, constant movement. Roosevelt was always striding, leaning forward in his chair, pacing purposefully. He waved his arms, clenched his fists, tugged at his watch chain, bounded exuberantly. Companions stood in awe at his appetite for physical exertion—swinging chest weights in Wood’s Gymnasium as a teenager, boxing with hulks as a rising politician, thundering through Washington’s Rock Creek Park on horseback as president. His devotees marveled at the vitality, but detractors saw only an adolescent lustiness. Either way, it stemmed from a deep sense of purpose and ego, coiled together like the double helix of his own DNA. “He was his own limelight,” wrote his friend Owen Wister, a well-known novelist, “and could not help it: a creature charged with such a voltage as his, became the central presence at once, whether he stepped on a platform or entered a room.”12
Roosevelt exploited this luminosity. Elected to the assembly at twenty-three, he leveraged the interest in him as a personality to win attention for his work. He befriended George Spinney, the New York Times’s Albany correspondent, whose favorable stories served the young politician’s ends. In the 1890s, as New York’s police commissioner, Roosevelt collaborated with Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives, a soon-to-be classic exposé of the wretchedness of the urban poor, and Lincoln Steffens, then starting his own storied muckraking career. Roosevelt conscripted the reporters to guide him through the demimonde of criminals and cops. In return he buffed their reputations—he called Riis “the most useful citizen of New York”—and tried to help them publish in The Atlantic an investigation of police corruption that he thought would help him reform the force.
Some thought the young commissioner too eager to ingratiate himself. But TR never stopped cultivating reporters, whose company he manifestly enjoyed. His gubernatorial victory in 1898 elated friends like Riis, who had given speeches on TR’s behalf, and minted new fans, including Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote a cooing profile in McClure’s magazine. Once in the New York statehouse, Roosevelt initiated twice-daily meetings with correspondents. Plopping himself on the edge of his desk, one leg folded underneath him, he would serve up a rapid-fire stream of tidbits, judgments, and jokes, all of it off the record.13
By the time he became president, Roosevelt was fully at ease with the press. His outsized personality, ambitious agenda, and taste for political theater provoked endless fascination. So did his burgeoning family. Roosevelt was the first president since Lincoln to bring young children to the White House, and, though mindful of their privacy, he couldn’t hide their mischief or suppress their exuberance, which may even have outrun their father’s. From Alice, his daughter from his first marriage, who at seventeen burst upon the Georgetown social scene, to the three-year-old Quentin, who joined his three brothers and two sisters in hurling snowballs at Secret Service agents and springing out of linen closets during games of hide-and-seek, the first family engineered a fusion of political news and society journalism that Washington had never before seen.
Roosevelt surrendered another bastion of presidential privacy by turning family retreats to Sagamore Hill, his Oyster Bay homestead, into working vacations. When McKinley had escaped Washington’s fishbowl with visits to his native Canton, Ohio, reporters seldom followed. But in 1902, after the Roosevelts began renovating the Executive Mansion and repaired to Long Island, a horde of correspondents tagged along. When the reporters filled the lulls with gossipy accounts of the first family’s antics, the president protested, oblivious to his own role in having whetted the appetite for presidential news. Presidential vacations would never be the same.14
If TR drew notice when he didn’t seek it, more often he pursued it—actively. “The spotlight of publicity followed Roosevelt all his life with curious devotion—by no means without Roosevelt’s encouragement,” wrote William Allen White, who provided TR with more than his share. “The master press agent of all time,” declared Isaac Marcosson, another correspondent. But, again, Roosevelt’s goal wasn’t just to be loved; it was to be effective. “Yes—it is true that TR liked the centre of the stage—loved it in fact,” wrote Henry Stoddard; “but when he sought it he always had something to say or to do that made the stage the appropriate place for him.” On one occasion, he descended to the bottom of Long Island Sound in a submarine to show his support for the new ships; on another, he rode ninety-eight miles on horseback to prove the reasonableness of new Army regulations. TR’s publicity stunts served a purpose.15
Understanding Roosevelt’s quest for publicity requires reconciling two meanings of the word. In his day, publicity meant, primarily, not the self-aggrandizing pursuit of attention, though that usage was catching on, but a commitment to making facts public, akin to transparency. The word signified an objective, not a subjective, presentation of information. Progressives like Roosevelt believed that if the backroom political deals and corporate malfeasance were exposed for the public to pass judgment, the outcry would force those in power to change their ways. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” the future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis wrote. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Thus, when the New York World wrote that TR’s strategy as police commissioner was “Publicity! Publicity! Publicity!” it wasn’t to mock his love of the headlines; it meant that he was laying open his department’s workings for public view. “We shall be glad to have reputable outsiders inspect and oversee everything that is done, and a complete record will be kept,” TR was quoted as saying. His first presidential message to Congress in 1901 prescribed publicity to check the trusts. “The first essential in determining how to deal with the great industrial combinations,” he said, “is knowledge of the facts—publicity.”16
Within a few years, the emergence of public relations professionals would set the word’s two meanings in conflict. The hired pros would become known for what we now call spinning information to put the best face on it, or promoting phony events that lacked intrinsic news value. In so doing, they transformed publicity from a synonym for full disclosure into something like an antonym, a term for selective, self-serving disclosure. But it was possible to use publicity in both ways at once, as Roosevelt did: He could climb behind the controls of a steam shovel while visiting Panama to dramatize the need for the canal, or release a government report on Chicago stockyard squalor to secure the passage of a meat inspection bill he was touting. Transparency and self-promotion alike advanced his agenda—and himself.
More than a tactic, publicity thoroughly informed Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency—a conception that was as bold, novel, and purposeful as the man himself. Typically, presidents had accepted the framers’ view of the executive as chiefly an administrative office, with Congress the center of governmental activity. TR, in contrast, believed the president should actively promote social change. In his Autobiography, he set forth what became known as his “stewardship theory”:
My view was that every executive officer . . . was a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people and not to content himself with the negative merit of keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin. I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the president unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded, unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.17
This groundbreaking theory fused two related ideas: an activist presidency and a reformist federal government. TR’s vision required not only that Washington meet the “needs of the nation” but also that the president, as opposed to Congress, take the lead in doing so. By positing a direct relationship between the president and the people, Roosevelt turned the executive into a job of public opinion leadership. It led him to try to discern the public will and the public interest; to go over the heads of Congress and other intermediaries to fashion his image and messages; and ultimately to usher in an age in which presidents would be perpetually engaged in the work of publicity and opinion management—the work of spin.
At the root of the theory was Roosevelt’s conviction, shared by his fellow Progressives, that the times demanded federal activism. No institution but the national government could check the enormous power of corporate capitalism, which he (and many others) saw as the overriding problem of the age. TR envisioned a strong state that would preserve a basic equality in American economic life. He wanted to toughen antitrust laws and regulate industries like the railroads and the meatpackers, and he backed social reforms like better conditions for workers.
This program, which Roosevelt called the “Square Deal,” embodied a moderate Progressivism. Many who wanted to use state power more aggressively were socialists or populists or otherwise stood to TR’s left. Scorning them as irresponsible, Roosevelt held that taming capitalism’s excesses required thoughtful, non-ideological governance, carried out for the benefit not of particular classes but of the nation as a whole. Herbert Croly, the great theorist of Progressivism, called Roosevelt “the first political leader of the American people to identify the national principle with an ideal of reform. . . . He was the first to realize that an American statesman could no longer really represent the national interest without becoming a reformer.”18
In Roosevelt’s view, only the president could govern in the name of the “national interest” that Croly described. Congressmen spoke for discrete and clamorous regional constituencies; the president alone could rise above particular interests to distill and promote what served the entire nation. “I acted for the public welfare,” TR declared in his Autobiography. “I acted for the common well-being of all our people.”19
In the early republic, ideas of virtuous leadership and the common good had been central to republican thought. But in the 1820s and 1830s, the parties became the dominant political vehicles, assembling coalitions based on appeals to the self-interest of their constituencies. For the rest of the nineteenth century, powerful machines, run by cagey bosses, corralled voters into loyally supporting their candidates at the polls. In return, the machines doled out jobs, welfare assistance, and other forms of aid that local governments failed to provide. This spoils system, however, thrived on corruption, and in the Gilded Age self-styled reformers agitated for change. Small-r republican ideas made a comeback. Reformers replaced federal patronage with a merit-based civil service and promoted independent voting through the secret ballot. Parties fell into disrepute, seen no longer as instruments of democracy but as barriers to its fulfillment. “We were ruled under the party system by an aristocracy which was financed by greed,” wrote the Progressive William Allen White, “and it was the problem of democracy to break down that aristocracy.”20
Though a proud Republican, Roosevelt exemplified the anti-party spirit. In his earliest days in politics, he joined with Harvard friends to found the City Reform Club to oust crooked politicians “irrespective of party.” As governor, he prided himself on “going over the heads of the men holding public office and of the men in control of the organization and appealing directly to the people behind them.” When in 1900 McKinley was casting about for a new vice president, it wasn’t Roosevelt’s Republican Party ties that got him noticed; it was his wild mass popularity. After McKinley’s assassination, TR used his popular standing to silence talk that he was an “accidental” president, and in 1904 he became the first presidential understudy who, having acceded to the Oval Office on his predecessor’s death, went on to win the presidency outright. He was elected as “a man rather than a party,” Woodrow Wilson said at the time, beholden to no “local constituency.” Roosevelt thus distinguished himself as the pivotal figure in the long-term shift from the party-based politics of the nineteenth century to the candidate-centered system of the media age.21
The president was now a statesman rather than a party man, a public tribune rather than the interests’ advocate, and a driver of policy change rather than an administrator. And in this new world, publicity became not just an ego indulgence but a sine qua non of governance. Roosevelt’s activist agenda meant that he had to not only monitor the public pulse but also keep the public emotionally invested in him. “His ordinary and native acts,” wrote John Dewey, “gained a representative significance.” Whether through private gestures such as “chopp[ing] down a tree at Oyster Bay” or in official acts like “sending a fleet around the world, he was the man in whom we saw our own ideals fulfilled or betrayed.”22
No one, indeed, was more attuned than TR to the special place that the presidency occupied in citizens’ inner lives, to the president’s unique role as national symbol. After a tour of the West, Roosevelt wrote about the throngs who had come to hear him. “Most of these people habitually led rather gray lives,” he wrote. “And they came in to see the president much as they would have come in to see the circus. It was something to talk over and remember and tell their children about. But I think that besides the mere curiosity there was a good feeling behind it all, a feeling that the president was their man and symbolized their government, and that they had a proprietary interest in him and wished to see him and that they hoped he embodied their aspirations and their best thought.” Or as he wrote to his friend the British historian G. M. Trevelyan: “Whatever value my service may have comes . . . more from what I am than from what I do. The bulk of my countrymen . . . feel that I am in a peculiar way their president, that I represent the democracy.”23
Roosevelt could claim to be the first president of the modern age not just because he used the power of the presidency on behalf of sweeping social reform—a feat in itself—but because he redefined the job by governing with an acute consciousness of his symbolic role. Tackling major national problems meant the president had to set the political agenda through speeches, the press, and the other emerging media of mass communication. This in turn meant commanding public attention by mastering the tools and techniques of persuasion and image craft that would, decades later, come to be known as spin.
Excerpted from the book Republic of Spin: An Inside History Of The American Presidency by David Greenberg. Copyright © 2016 by David Greenberg. Reprinted with permission of W. W. Norton & Company.
- David Greenberg, author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.” He tweets @republicofspin.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.