On Message

After the tumult of the 2016 election season has subsided, one result can be safely predicted: The most successful “spinners”—speechwriters and strategists, digital gurus and data miners, pollsters and PR people—will be alternately praised as masterminds and pilloried as manipulators. For those who yearn for an era before political candidates had “handlers”—and who ignore the fact that “authenticity” is as likely to take the form of the incendiary Donald Trump as the idealistic Bernie Sanders or Rand Paul—David Greenberg’s magisterial history of White House hype, Republic of Spin, is a welcome reminder that public relations has long been an integral part of presidential politics.

In this sweeping survey, Greenberg reveals that efforts from within the Oval Office to shape public opinion began much earlier than many potted histories of the modern presidency might lead you to believe. For instance, well before TV spots and viral videos, Republican presidential nominee William McKinley starred in the first-ever campaign film, in 1896. With a costly advertising blitz managed by the coal magnate Mark Hanna, McKinley defeated the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, the first major-party candidate to barnstorm across the country. Hanna was a historic figure and is a hero to Republican strategist Karl Rove. But the film’s producer, McKinley’s younger brother Abner, an early investor in silent movies, is long forgotten.

McKinley’s successor was the twentieth century’s first celebrity president, Theodore Roosevelt. TR and later chief executives Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover relied on public-relations officers throughout the federal government to promote their accomplishments to the press and the public. In fact, the first White House press secretary was a former postal inspector, George Cortelyou, who served McKinley and TR and eventually became the latter’s treasury secretary.

As for presidential speechwriters, the first full-time White House wordsmith was the former journalist Judson Welliver, who served as “literary clerk” for Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Decades after his death, a group of current and former presidential speechwriters, led by the late language maven William Safire, founded the Judson Welliver Society, which meets annually, attracting such ghostwriters-turned-pundits as Pat Buchanan, Chris Matthews, and Peggy Noonan.

In short, when it comes to presidential PR, there’s nothing new. Even political number crunching was pioneered in the 1930s by Emil Hurja, who analyzed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polling data. Hurja coined the metaphor “data mining,” a turn of phrase that came naturally to him since he had covered oil drilling and other extractive industries during his previous career as a journalist.

While the simple chronology of presidential spin is entertaining, Greenberg also highlights the various ways that Oval Office messaging gets interpreted—often at the hands of the same people who have made a career out of crafting it. From TR through Obama, presidents’ efforts to exercise their powers of persuasion have been inspired not only by political operatives and public-relations practitioners but also by progressive intellectuals. Often ambivalent about presidential power and popular culture, these thinkers have written widely about the vast potential of charismatic leaders and mass communications, for good and ill.

Not surprisingly, TR, Wilson, and TR’s Democratic distant cousin FDR all believed in the primacy of the president as the only figure who could speak to and for the entire nation, thereby mobilizing public opinion for far-reaching reforms.

These leaders transformed the figure of the president from a de facto CEO of the nation into a symbolic leader, prodding his national constituency into new spheres of activity and preaching progressive reform from what TR called “the bully pulpit.” In addition to placing public-relations officers throughout federal departments and agencies, TR pioneered the use of the presidential press conference, courted White House reporters with news “leaks,” and made himself and his family media stars. Taking office four years after TR’s term ended, Wilson was the first president to deliver his State of the Union addresses in person, thereby generating news coverage. Wilson also followed TR’s example by traveling throughout the nation to promote his policies. Two decades later, FDR made use of the new medium of his era—radio—by addressing Americans with intimate “fireside chats.”

Greenberg shows how the methods of presidential persuasion have drawn on a wide range of influences, both within the Beltway and beyond. As political messaging became more sophisticated during the first decades of the past century, so did corporate public relations and mass marketing. Presidents were attuned to these trends, and sought out talent and technique from the corporate, academic, journalistic, and even literary worlds.

Cover of Esquire, May 1968.
Cover of Esquire, May 1968.

Among the influential figures in the TR and Wilson administrations were two founders of the profession of public relations: Ivy Lee, a former journalist who represented the Rockefeller family, and Edward Bernays, a social thinker who adapted the ideas of his uncle Sigmund Freud. Early in the past century, advertising also emerged as a mature industry, its practices developed by pathbreakers like Albert Lasker, who promoted Harding, and Bruce Barton, who advised Coolidge and was later elected as a Republican House member from New York.

TR, Wilson, and FDR worked with those TR called “muckraking” investigative reporters, as well as other social critics, often enlisting them in efforts to promote policies that they might have otherwise opposed. Reelected in 1916 as the president who “kept us out of war,” Wilson hired the journalist George Creel, who had worked in his antiwar campaign, to head the Committee on Public Information, which built support for American involvement in World War I. After the Allied victory, Wilson tapped Walter Lippmann, later the nation’s most influential newspaper columnist, to draft his Fourteen Points for what he hoped would be a peaceful postwar world.

Lippmann is among the social thinkers who pioneered a theoretical defense of how presidential communications had to function in a mass democracy. In 1922, he wrote his classic book Public Opinion, in which he suggested that the vast majority of citizens need to be educated and even motivated by a better-informed elite. As Greenberg notes, the controversies sparked by Lippmann’s book echoed through later decades of political impression-management. The progressive philosopher John Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems, his 1927 rejoinder to Lippmann’s book, was more optimistic about mass communications and democratic politics, expressing the hope that radio would serve as a “university of the air.” During the 1950s and ’60s, social critics such as Vance Packard and Daniel Boorstin warned that advertisers and public-relations professionals used “hidden persuaders” and “pseudo-events” to manipulate the public. But by thetwenty-first century, the pendulum had gradually swung back toward Dewey’s pole of the debate, with the linguist George Lakoff and the psychologist Drew Westen suggesting that gifted communicators can “frame” issues in ways that appeal to the public’s preexisting patterns of assimilating information and evaluating ideas.

Lippmann and Dewey each influenced the next wartime president, FDR, who had served in Wilson’s cabinet and who built on his legacy. During World War II, FDR’s Office of Facts and Figures was headed first by the liberal poet Archibald MacLeish, who had helped draft some of his speeches, and then, reconfigured as the Office of War Information, by the radio newscaster Elmer Davis. Among the intellectuals who worked in the office were the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the journalists Malcolm Cowley and E. B. White, and the educator Milton Eisenhower, brother of the Allied commander.

After World War II, successive American presidents perfected ever more sophisticated communications techniques. As Greenberg explains, quoting the journalist William Shannon, the famously plainspoken Harry Truman was a “closet intellectual” who carefully prepared his seemingly extemporaneous talks with staffers who studied polling data and assembled briefing books. Similarly, the supposedly stumbling Dwight Eisenhower was coached for his speeches by the actor Robert Montgomery and assisted by a speechwriting staff that included the journalist Emmett John Hughes.

While Truman and Eisenhower each used television, the first president to master the medium was John F. Kennedy, whose news conferences were televised live. As Marshall McLuhan explained, the wryly relaxed Kennedy benefited from TV’s nature as a “cool medium” that favors low-key personalities. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan, the first former media professional to become president, also made the most of his genial personality when he appeared before the TV cameras. Nervous and intense, Richard Nixon was less successful on television, whether he was debating Kennedy or delivering nationally televised addresses.

With forty-seven out of forty-nine chapters covering the presidencies of McKinley through Reagan, Greenberg devotes relatively little attention to the past quarter century, an era characterized by the growth of pugnacious punditry, the twenty-four-hour cable-news cycle, and the political polarization surrounding the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. While noting that Obama has added a White House videographer and a Twitter feed, Greenberg does not explore the far-reaching implications of social media, which are already proving as transformative as mass-circulation newspapers and magazines were in TR’s time—or as radio and TV were for FDR and JFK, respectively.

From TR through Reagan, presidents sought to speak over the heads of Congress to address Americans through the mass media. Now social media allow activists to be their own publishers, pundits, and broadcasters, and national figures of all kinds to address individual Americans with the help of activists, Netizens, and other enthusiasts. With his sophisticated digital operation, Obama has been the first president to engage Americans directly on their computer screens and smartphones. But he won’t be the last.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994 and has written five books on political, economic, and social issues.