Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

Author:Major, Mark
Position:Book review
 
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Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. By David Greenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 540 pp.

Republic of Spin is a captivating history of the institutionalization of the public presidency. David Greenberg takes us on a comprehensive tour of the various iterations of the dark arts of presidential persuasion: publicity, ballyhoo, communication, news management, image making, and spin. Drawing on archival and secondary sources, Greenberg familiarizes us with the political actors and institutions of spin: presidents (from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama), pollsters, demagogues, journalists, political consultants, social scientists, and public relations experts that command each significant era.

Conflict and cooperation between presidents and the press are enduring themes of the book. Presidents' desires for publicity remain in constant tension with their desires to control how those appeals are framed (p. 50). Despite that tension, there is a good deal of fluidity between journalism and politics. Reporter Will Irwin, for example, followed "a common journalistic practice," according to Greenberg, "of writing about presidents one day and working for them the next" (p. 179).

Republic of Spin is also a story about spin's discontent, the social anxiety that is generated by presidents exploiting new mediums for publicity. Of course, partisanship shapes perceptions of the intent of public appeals. The political opposition asserts that the president is doing the devil's work while those in power contend that they are simply appealing to the better angels of our nature by providing objective information and facts. Remarking on Franklin Roosevelt's exhaustive expansion of the public presidency, Greenberg argues that, for FDR's admirers, "that publicity was a welcome dose of transparency. To his detractors, it was a decidedly unwelcome form of propaganda" (p. 249). In other cases, publicity drew contempt from the entire political spectrum. The beleaguered George Creel, head of the contentious Committee on Public Information during World War I, lamented that "conservatives call me a radical" while "the radicals all call me a conservative" (p. 113).

Presidents, too, expressed anxiety about what public persuasion would do to the seeming integrity of the Oval Office in particular and American politics more generally. As two-time Democratic presidential nominee (and two-time loser) Adlai Stevenson said of political advertising, "The...

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