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David Greenberg's newest book, Republic of Spin, offers a compelling and expansive account of the rise of presidential messaging, that oft-criticized concept commonly referred to as spin. If establishing a clear definition of spin can prove elusive, recognizing its presence as "a distinct feature of politics" does not (p. 8, emphasis in original). According to Greenberg, spin is revealed most directly in "the systematic uses, through a range of tools and techniques, of public image and message craft" employed by American presidents as they attempt to manage their relationship with the people (p. 8). Written as an accessible narrative history, Republic of Spin takes the reader on a whirlwind trip of presidential image making across the past century, from the Rough Rider days of Theodore Roosevelt to the digital days of Barack Obama.
It should come as little surprise to observers of presidential history that Greenberg locates the foundation of this republic on the shoulders of Theodore Roosevelt. As scholars have long noted, any assessment of the development of the presidency would be incomplete [End Page 706] without an appreciation of Roosevelt's influence. Greenberg himself rightfully mentions that the pattern at the center of his book—that the growing stature of the presidency meant presidents increasingly needed "to master the arts of public persuasion, in order to promote their policies and themselves"—is one which political scientists have been analyzing for decades (p. 6). But Greenberg's story of spin and its impact on the presidency is about more than just those men who served as president. It is also about the men who advised those presidents by helping "gauge the public mood, deliver speeches, deal with the press, and otherwise work the levers of the growing spin machine" (p. 6). Thus, we are given an inside look at the work of these professional consultants, a group of political actors that have remained obscured for far too long. To understand how the nature and expectations of their work have changed over time, the book is divided into six historical ages of media concepts and practices: "Age of Publicity," "Age of Ballyhoo," "Age of Communication," "Age of News Management," "Age of Image Making," and "Age of Spin."
Given the scope of the book, most treatments of presidential spin and its critics are confined to brief, yet persuasive, chapters. But its appeal can be found in these small snap-shots of spin. Consider, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower's tenure during the Cold War's "Age of News Management." Although he and Truman are "often misremembered as innocents in crafting their words and appearances," both presidents utilized "television coaches, public relations aides, pollsters, and press secretaries, in order to fashion their public identities" (p. 251). Needing to spin the fact that Eisenhower had never previously held any elected office, his supporters enlisted an advertising executive to develop a "unique selling proposition (USP)" for the 1952 presidential campaign. The executive, Rosser Reeves, settled on "Eisenhower, Man of Peace," a theme which successfully packaged the candidate's domestic, economic, and international positions into one neat political bow.
Throughout Republic of Spin the reader encounters a host of characters like Reeves, some famous, some less so, while also being [End Page 707] exposed to myriad tales of spin, some benign, some shameful. By the end of the book, a claim made at the outset circles back to the reader's mind: "most of us are wise to the ways of admen, pollsters, speechwriters, and pundits. We're creatures of the age of spin" (p. 8). But are cracks starting to show in the republic's foundation? Will spin gain or lose power in an age of post-truth politics?
JEREMY STRICKLER is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. His current research explores the historical dynamic between the American presidency, war, and domestic policy.