Author Archives: Chris Burnett

Spinning presidential yarns

By Chris Burnett

Greenberg, David. The Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (2016) New York: W.W. Norton & Company, $18.95, 540 pages.

In The Republic of Spin, historian David Greenberg provides the reader with a comprehensive summary and analysis of the development of public relations techniques used by U.S. presidents since the turn of the 20th century. Today it is impossible to imagine a world where presidents had no one on their White House staffs assigned to deal with the media or go over the Washington press corps’ heads to develop a positive image of the chief executive with the public. However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century, with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, that chief executives began to aggressively court, or as we say today, “spin,” the media, with a concerted public relations effort.

Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, has done an excellent job in writing a series of essays describing the nature of the presidents serving over the past century and how they have used the communications technology of their day. As a historian, he is well equipped to describe events that promoted the professionalism of presidential public relations. The 44 chapters, comprised of essays between 10 and 15 pages long, are written in a journalistic style the author has honed as an editor at Slate and the New Republic, and as a writer for the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic and other professional and scholarly publications. The book is especially useful for general readers wanting to know more about presidents and the press. The Republic of Spin is great for an undergraduate politics or journalism class, for the focus on people and events of the day make this book an easy read.

Greenberg’s main theme, developed throughout the book’s 540 pages with numerous examples, is that spin, defined as the “huge arsenal of tools and techniques (elected officials and their aides have used) to shape their messages, their images and our thinking,” has become an integral part of presidential campaigning and governing. Greenberg writes that spin involves the work done by an army of campaign consultants, press secretaries, handlers, speechwriters and other political handlers as well as hacks and flacks to make sure every public utterance coming from the White House or presidential campaign is portrayed in the most favorable light. Whether spin is a good or bad thing seems to be irrelevant to Greenberg. Spin is just there, and it is a key part of the modern presidency.

To support his theme, Greenberg takes the reader on a tour of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, concluding with a superficial glance at the Obama administration’s spin efforts. He focuses more detail on the development of spin in the first three quarters of the 20th century, through the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1974. In fact, Nixon’s failure to effectively spin the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters was arguably the most devastating in the history of the presidency.

Greenberg’s tour is entertaining, and the reader will learn a lot about how public relations’ early pioneers, such as Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward Bernays, who played a key role in developing presidential and political public relations. Certain presidents, such as Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, not surprisingly, played a big role in expanding the role of spin in the presidency. Woodrow Wilson, the first president to deliver his State of the Union address in person to Congress, also found success in the world of spin, though his later failure to get the Senate to ratify the treaty that would have brought the nation into the League of Nations marred the end of his presidency. John F. Kennedy was a master of spin through the first live televised news conferences and commanding performance in the first live televised debate in 1960 with Republican candidate Nixon. My favorite chapter of the book discusses the Kennedy campaign’s masterful handling of reporter Theodore White’s chronicling of the 1960 campaign in what would become The Making of the President 1960, which won the Pulitzer Prize and burnished a positive image for the president well before his assassination. By giving White unprecedented access to the Kennedy campaign, and charming his fellow Bostonian, Kennedy showed that special treatment of individual media members could help make for favorable treatment with future journalists and historians. White would go on to chronicle future presidential campaigns in the Making of the President series throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but it was his 1960 book that won the greatest acclaim. In effect, White showed that journalists can be persuaded to spin.

Another advantage of Greenberg’s historical approach comes from his mention (although it is by no means emphasized in the text) that presidents taking advantage of “new media” tend to be viewed as most successful. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) used his love of personal campaigning and celebrity status as war hero in the Spanish-American War to feed the thirst of the expanding print media of newspapers and muckraking magazines for political news. Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) used the new medium of radio to deliver carefully crafted Fireside Chats and build the image of strong leadership that make him president until nearly the end of World War II. Kennedy (1961-1963) mastered the new medium of television, and Obama (2009-2017) was the first president to use spin to harness the power of the Internet, particularly Facebook, to build a strong positive image in campaigning and fund raising. The book was written before Donald Trump’s triumphant 2016 campaign, so future historians will get to analyze whether Trump’s use of spin with Twitter feeds will continue to help him build a following and allow him bypass a hostile Washington press corps.

Greenberg’s book, however, has its flaws. The historical approach he uses and emphasis on spin causes him to downplay the role historical events can play in presidential success or failure. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was a successful president because he presided over a nation at a time of great prosperity more than because he mastered spin. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) was a legislative master but a poor television communicator. Yet it would be hard to imagine any president positively spinning the Vietnam War or the race riots of the late 1960s.

The book’s length, and scope, also make it at times appear to be overly stuffed with facts and people that it is hard for the reader to focus on what he considers to be the most significant factors influencing political spin. . Greenberg’s journalistic and historical approach makes the book easy to read, but the lack of focus can also provide the impression of superficiality. The author also focuses too little on more recent administrations. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, two presidents who were among the more accessible to the media, get brief treatment, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal is the major focus given to Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms. The chapter on Obama emphasizes his campaign success but does not explain how or why his administration was unable to use its talent at spin to make at least a dent in the partisan opposition in Congress.

Despite these flaws, The Republic of Spin is a useful compilation of stories on the role political public relations plays in building successful presidencies. This volume is useful in that so much information on so many presidents is packed into one book. However, readers turning to this book for an analysis of the current relationship between presidency and the media will not find what they want in this otherwise impressive work.


GJR book review: Is he what Ailes the media? Writer peels curtain back on Fox News chairman

Roger Ailes: Off Camera
Author: Zev Chafets
Publisher: Penguin Books
Hardcover: $26.95, 258 pages

Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, is a man the media industry has learned to take seriously, even fear. Though much less well-known to the public than his boss, Rupert Murdoch, his considerable talent and work ethic is responsible for building Fox into the undisputed leader of cable television, leading the cable ratings wars the past 12 years over rivals CNN and MSNBC.

Zev Chafets’ “Roger Ailes: Off Camera” is the story of more than just Ailes’ command of Fox News and its on air-personalities, all of whom Ailes hired since setting up the network with Murdoch’s blessing (and money) 17 years ago. It’s also the tale of a tough small-town boy from Warren, Ohio, a declining factory town in northeastern Ohio. In fact, it is the first third of the book that I found the most compelling, because it explains why Ailes, astute as well as profane, became who he is. Chafets, who had unlimited access to the Fox chairman and others at the network, tells how Ailes got into many fights as a boy (something his working-class father encouraged) despite the fact he has hemophilia, a blood disorder that made bruises not just painful but also potentially fatal.

Chafets also relates how Ailes was devastated upon returning home at Christmas during his freshman year at Ohio University to find his home sold and his belongings discarded. “My mother was what you could call self-absorbed,” Ailes told Chafets in explaining his mother’s decision to leave his father and go West with another man. “She did what suited her.” Still, he remained close to his mother and stepfather, as well as to his natural father, the rest of their lives. Family and small-town values of hard work are paramount in Ailes’ world.

It’s also tale of a man who took advantage of every break he got, from producing the Mike Douglas show for KYW-TV in Cleveland and Philadelphia, where he made key contacts in the entertainment industry, to being a political adviser to Republican presidential campaigns. Ailes has never shied away from political conservatism (he and conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh have a long-time professional relationship), yet he also counts liberals such as the Kennedy family and Barbara Walters as among his closest friends. Over the years, Chafets explains, Ailes would combine his political and corporate consulting with television production. He served key political consulting roles for presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Ailes is credited with counseling Reagan, who had looked old and confused in his first debate In the 1984 presidential campaign with Democrat Walter Mondale, to jab back in the second debate. Ailes candidly told the president the country was wondering whether he was past his prime. The result: Reagan came up with the quip, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan won reelection in a landslide.

Chafets also shows what many liberals see as Ailes’ evil genius. In 1988, Chafets says Ailes was “the spine stiffener for the sometimes indecisive Bush,” directing a brilliant ad campaign that painted liberal Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic opponent, as soft on crime for furloughing a convicted murderer, Willie Horton. In the early 1990s, as Ailes transitioned out of politics into being a broadcast executive, liberals looked at him warily and have fought back against his tight rein at Fox News, which he took over after a short stint at CNBC.

Most readers, especially Fox News viewers, will find stories behind Ailes’ hiring and relationships with such Fox stars as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly the most compelling part of the book. For example, readers learn how O’Reilly and Hannity, Fox’s biggest stars, don’t speak to one another, although their offices are on the same floor. Chafets also relates a story of the importance Ailes places upon loyalty in explaining his firing of financial analyst Jim Cramer, now with CNBC, for discussing another job opportunity with a Fox rival and being caught publicly criticizing Ailes.

The book is a quick read and is filled with plenty of admiring anecdotes from those who have worked with, or known, Ailes. Those anecdotes, many filled with stories of Ailes’ kindness and dedication, strike me as being the book’s weakest portions, for I suspect many are telling these stories out of a desire to curry favor with the powerful Fox chairman.

Ailes, rotund and balding at age 73, is under no illusion that the reviews will stay positive after he’s dead. He has no intention of retiring, but he says he knows he has at most another decade to live. He plans to write his memoirs and spend as much time as he can with his only child, a son, Zac, who is just entering his teen years. “Right now, everybody thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world,” Ailes says. “The eulogies will be great, but people will be stepping over my body before it gets cold.” The legacy – the founding of a network from scratch devoted to the conservative 50 percent of Americans, and its commercial success under his leadership – will almost certainly remain

GJR book review: ‘This Town’ offers no prescription for reforming America’s gilded capital

‘Mark Leibovich. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking – in America’s Gilded Capital (2013) New York: Blue Rider Press, a Member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 371 pages


By Chris Burnett

The funerals of Tim Russert, longtime host of “Meet the Press,” and Richard Holbrooke, American diplomat and adviser to Democratic presidents, involved two men who would seem on the surface to have had little in common. Holbrooke, the hard-charging special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time of his death in 2010, moved in the highest diplomatic circles, never shied away from controversy and made no attempt to keep his ego in check. Russert, who died two years earlier, was the avuncular everyman, known for his fair-minded but tough questioning of American political figures. He clearly had an ego, too, but he kept it under check, preferring to talk and write about his affection for his father, Big Russ.

In Washington journalism and politics, however, the worlds of these two men – and the worlds of countless other journalists and politicians – are shared. Funerals become special events, where the high and mighty (and political climbers from the media and politics) are on hand, as much to be seen as sensitive. Bill and Hillary Clinton, the apex of the social circle of today’s Washington, attended both funerals. In the world of insider Washington, funerals, just like April’s gala White House Correspondent’s Dinner, are not just attended and televised. They’re also tweeted about, covered for days and weeks before and after, and become Washington’s version of Hollywood on the Potomac. To be at these events, after all, is to be in “The Club” of Washington journalistic and political elite.

Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, and himself most likely considered a member of “The Club,” tells this story of journalistic and political Washington during the Obama presidency in the book “This Town.” It’s the ideal beach read – and if you’re into the world of politics and the media of the Beltway sort, it’s a real page-turner.

As a Washington reporter in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, and as an unreformed political junkie, I loved the book. It described a Washington journalism that still resembles that of the 1980s, but which also has changed. In the 1980s, journalists went with their political friends (generally those they covered or celebrities they were able to land) to the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner, held at the Washington Hilton Hotel. They also angled to get jobs that would get them into “The Club,” which then consisted of the big national newspapers, networks and CNN. For those in the second tier (I was a regional reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch) members of “The Club” were those you worked next to, not really with. I’d go to the Correspondent’s Dinner, but not with the best prom date or invitation to the most glittering before and after parties.

What’s changed in the last 20 or so years, according to Leibovich, is the expansion of cable television news starting in the 1990s and the explosion of the Internet. Organizations such as Politico, the political news wire service started in 2007 that distributes its content in print, radio, television – and, most significantly, on the Internet – have taken away much of the agenda-setting role once played by the New York Times and Washington Post. The book is at its best in its profile of veteran Club reporter Mike Allen, whose daily “Playbook” column in Politico is a must-read ticker of the day’s news, with a focus on the personalities in the media and politics on Capitol Hill and in the White House. At 8 a.m. on any given day, those on the campaign bus are either reading or have already read “The Playbook,” Leibovich says.

Leibovich calls all this a sort of pigpen, with politicians and political “spinmeisters” jumping into journalism (as in Obama pal David Axelrod now serving as a commentator for MSNBC) or setting up lobbying shops, and journalists angling for higher-paying jobs in public and government relations. With the 24-hour news cycle feeding an orgy of the trivial and the trendy, and with insiders reluctant to burn the sources they are likely to run into at tomorrow’s party, what happens to serious coverage of government?

This book provides no answer to this question, unfortunately, that’s its biggest fault. This book entertains, even amuses, but provides no prescriptions. For those living outside the Washington Beltway, the book – which has no index, lest people quoted seek out reference to their name – has got to be a tad depressing. The fact that all these narcissists are running and reporting on major events involving the country, getting rich or at least living comfortably, while the rest of the nation struggles through an economic recession can get tiring when thrown in your face page after page. Still, I found “This Town” an immensely entertaining read. It describes a political Washington that President Obama promised to reform when he came to office, and it leaves you chuckling at stories but frustrated by what is most likely the impossibility of that task. Still, the book begs the question: Is this the best we can do?

Chris Burnett is professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at California State University, Long Beach. He reported on Congress and the Supreme Court and the politics of Washington from 1979 to 1989.