H.W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is “Reagan: The Life.”
David Greenberg charts the evolution of presidential spin in getting out the message the White House wants.
When Theodore Roosevelt was president of the New York City police board, he discovered that reporters made remarkably effective assistants. Roosevelt would invite the correspondents on his midnight rambles through the seedy sections of the city, where he sought out corrupt patrolmen. He understood the bitterly competitive nature of the newspaper business in New York in the 1890s, and he recognized the pressure the papers felt to deliver headlines that would arrest readers’ attention. “A Baghdad Night,” shouted the Commercial Advertiser after a typical trawl. “Roosevelt in the Role of Haroun Alraschid. Police Caught Napping.”
The board president took pains to cut a dashing figure. “Sing, heavenly Muse, the sad dejection of our poor policemen,” the World lyricized. “We have a real Police Commissioner. His name is Theodore Roosevelt. His teeth are big and white, his eyes are small and piercing, his voice is rasping. He makes our policemen feel as the little froggies did when the stork came out to rule them.” The papers didn’t uniformly like Roosevelt — the mockery in the World’s tone was evident — but they couldn’t resist the stories he gave them.
David Greenberg rightly begins “Republic of Spin,” his history of spin and the American presidency, with TR. Roosevelt won the New York governorship on the strength of “Rough Riders,” a shamelessly self-promoting account of his exploits in the Spanish-American War; from there he vaulted into the vice presidency and, upon the murder of William McKinley, the presidency. Roosevelt employed the publicity tools that had won him office to work the levers of power. He made himself a story no Washington reporter could pass up, gathering around him a coterie of correspondents whose inside access required strict adherence to ground rules he set. They could quote him only with his express permission. A French writer whom Roosevelt wanted to impress was included in one of the “seances,” as the gatherings were called, and emerged with a notebook of revealing remarks from the American chief executive. The gist shortly appeared in the press. Roosevelt denied having said anything of the sort or even having spoken to the man. He later explained his apparent duplicity: “Of course I said it, but I said it as Theodore Roosevelt and not as the President of the United States!”