President Theodore Roosevelt gives a speech at Pomona College in the early 1900s. Credit: Claremont Colleges Digital Library / Flickr Creative Commons
We think of political spin as a modern-day phenomena. The phrase conjures up images of dark-suited politicians on TV sparring with journalists intent on getting the truth.
But long before we were yelling at the talking heads on our TVs, Plato and Socrates were tearing apart the ancient equivalent of spin: rhetoric.
Spin has coursed through American politics in one form or another from the beginning. And it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“We need to think of it as argument, as advocacy, as the way politicians put the best slant on their argument,” says David Greenberg, who teaches history at Rutgers. He wrote, a book about the evolution of spin.
President Teddy Roosevelt kicked off the spin circus as we know it. “He wants the presidency to be a seat of activism,” Greenberg says. “And thinks that to do that he needs to mobilize the mass public.”
So he held proto press conferences, train tours, and one-on-ones with influential journalists while he was getting a shave.
Greenberg says one journalist recalls waiting “until the straight-edge of the razor grazed Roosevelt’s lip, and then they could start firing off some questions because otherwise they couldn’t get a word in.”
When radio and TV took to the airwaves, so did the politicians. And they got advice on everything from whether to wear glasses to how to angle the lights so their bald heads didn’t create a glare.
“Even the most unprepossessing presidents, those who today we remember as unrehearsed did very much make use of spin doctors and radio coaches, TV coaches, pollsters,” Greenberg says.
Of course, they rarely admit to that. Because as much as the public demands authenticity, we don’t want to know how hard politicians have to work to achieve it.