- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (January 10, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393353648
- ISBN-13: 978-0393353648
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
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- #172 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Elections & Political Process > Media & Internet
- #213 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Specific Topics > Propaganda & Political Psychology
- #761 in Books > Textbooks > Communication & Journalism > Media Studies
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Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency 1st Edition
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“Greenberg is a terrific storyteller. . . . An education and an engrossing read.”
- Christopher Buckley, National Interest
- Michael Beschloss, New York Times Book Review
“Greenberg neatly weaves a history of public relations into his political tale.”
- H. W. Brands, Washington Post
“This essential book is going to wind up on every politico’s shelf.”
- Matthew Cooper, Washingtonian
“In Republic of Spin, David Greenberg opens a new and revealing window on the modern American presidency by showing how the effort to manipulate public opinion has long been a central obsession in the Oval Office. Vivid characters, some very famous and some obscure, bring this important story to life and enlighten us about what presidents can and cannot accomplish.”
- Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Oath and The Nine
“Anyone wishing to understand how our politics evolved from the era of Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit to the exquisitely calibrated constructions of today’s publicists, pollsters, speechwriters, and snakes needs to read Republic of Spin. David Greenberg’s book is everything that a political history should be―vivid, comprehensive, and important.”
- Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
“An utterly engrossing and deeply authoritative examination of spin and the American presidency―its origins, its vital role over the past century, its enduring importance. Greenberg’s elegant narrative brings this history vividly alive, as he weaves individual lives and broader societal forces into a major reassessment of modern American political culture. Spin has always been a part of politics, and it always will be; read this gem of a book to find out why that is, and what it means for our democracy.”
- Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Embers of War
About the Author
David Greenberg is a historian of American politics and a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He is the author of the prize-winning Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, among other books. Currently a columnist for Politico, he has been an editor at Slate and the New Republic and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other popular and scholarly publications. He lives with his family in New York City.
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But then, I think it's just fine when he uses an article with *hoi polloi*, thus violating a silly rule that style manuals scold about. It would've been better still, though, if he had not loaded his text with so many superfluous Greek, Latin and French phrases. I guess plain English isn't good enough if one is trying to create a *tome* for scholars (as he declares on page 449).
After several chapters, one begins to wonder what the topic of this book is, and I suspect that the title, Republic of Spin, was forced on him by the publisher. If you are expecting this book to be an exposé of how politicians distort what they present the public, you'll be disappointed with most of it. The subtitle, An Inside History of the American Presidency, is more accurate, but why are entire chapters devoted to such things as the Scopes Monkey Trial, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, author Vance Packard, and Orson Welles's October 30, 1938 dramatization of The War of the Worlds? (There is general disagreement over how much panic the broadcast actually caused, but Professor Greenberg strongly favors the accounts of mass hysteria. Of course he does.) Included is the "Don't think of an elephant!" paradox. What do these topics have to do with either a Republic of Spin or An Inside History of the American Presidency?
At times, this book meanders about so much that it is reminiscent of The Glory and the Dream, a Narrative History of America, William Manchester's massive (two volume) history of everything that happened in the USA between 1932 and 1972, but Professor Greenberg is no William Manchester, and it would have been better had he limited his chronicle to a specific topic.
Throughout the book, it is evident that Professor Greenberg admires Walter Lippmann (1889-1974). He would like to >be< Walter Lippmann, whose name is mentioned on almost every page (no guff!). Lippmann was one of the last of the great Public Intellectuals whose opinions on both foreign and domestic policy, democratic principles and society in general were highly respected. With the decline of newspapers and magazines, it's difficult to imagine how influential journalists such as Lippmann once were (but I see that there's a free half-hour YT video of Glenn Beck denouncing him). Other such celebrated intellectuals were John Dewey (1859-1952) and Hannah Arendt, both of whom are quoted at length in this book, and Thorstein Veblen and Leo Strauss who are not. (Professor Greenberg seems to be of a liberal persuasion, and Leo Strauss is the prophet of neoconservatives. About the only public intellectuals I can name offhand who are still actively philosophizing are Noam Chomsky and maybe Camille Paglia, although neither are as popular or influential as they once were.) The only problem with such philosophers is that they typically dress basic and obvious ideas in tortured academic language (the likes of which have infected this book), which is why even in, say, the New York Times or The New Yorker, neither Lippmann nor Dewey are discussed at any length today. (In 2015, The New Yorker ran a profile of low-brow, though influential, Washington muckraker and political gossip columnist Drew Pearson, a profile which is more informative than this book.)
A serious shortcoming of Republic of Spin is that Professor Greenberg examines everything from the liberal (Lippmann) point of view, when traditionally, the majority of the periodicals of the nation, the newspapers and newsmagazines, were owned by conservatives and expressed a fierce right-wing advocacy. I don't fault Greenberg for not mentioning conservatives because I hold such beliefs, but because he ignores the immense pressure politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) were under to placate the always-angry right, or at least not allow them issues with which to alarm the public. The book fails to mention that John F. Kennedy ran on a platform which was far more hawkish (go to war over Quemoy and Matsu?) than that of Nixon (imagine!), and his administration went ahead and invaded Cuba, not because Cuba posed an imminent threat to Florida (or whatever), but so that he would not be seen as being "soft" on communism. The same is true with Lyndon Johnson getting mired in Vietnam.
This book depicts a constant struggle between the government and influential columnists such as Lippmann, but the real spin has been the vortex between the government and the ultra-right. Professor Greenberg says nothing about the fact that there was a cult of hate directed against the Kennedys which was every bit as rabid (no, make that >almost as< rabid) as the cult of hate against the Clintons and the Obamas, and for better reasons. Kennedy had to govern while Victor Lasky's books were best sellers, just as Eisenhower had to put up with None Dare Call It Treason being seen in every uncool guy's shirt pocket, IMPEACH EARL WARREN billboards, and the calumny that his brother Milton was the head of the U.S. communist party. No wonder they had to be reticent and evasive, but Professor Greenberg seems unaware of any of this.
The only conservative member of the press Professor Greenberg discusses at any length is H. L. Mencken, but Greenberg knows nothing of Mencken, has only read one of his books - - Notes on Democracy, said by some to be his worst effort - - then dismisses him as a garden-variety reactionary similar to Westbrook Pegler, so that's a worthless chapter, too. (Incidentally, the website of the Mencken Society prominently displays, in its entirety, Walter Lippmann's 1926 critique of the Mencken book, and if you only read the parts of this review which Greenberg quotes, you're missing the eloquence of Lippmann's masterpiece.)
Professor Greenberg's neglect is a shame because Mencken claimed to have had “The honor of encountering three Presidents of the United States in their cups, not to mention sitting Governors of all the states save six,” and he wrote a great deal, and in more detail, about the problems of the White House Press Corps. In the main, Mencken, himself a newspaperman and magazine editor, generally blamed the journalists as being at fault: "For example, the problem of false news. [!] How does so much of it get into the American newspapers, even the good ones? . . . It is because journalists are, in the main, extremely stupid, sentimental and credulous fellows - - because nothing is easier than to fool them." (From Prejudices: Sixth Series , 1927) He then provides numerous examples to support his accusation, and it's far livelier reading than Professor Greenberg's dreary Lippmann pastiche.
In a book of history, what the reader is most interested in is, How much new information does the author bring to the table? If the history is merely a rehash of your high-school textbook, why bother reading all that again? Too much of Republic of Spin merely recounts what most people already know: Did Kennedy lie about the US participation in the Cuban Invasion fiasco? Did Eisenhower lie about our numerous violations of Soviet airspace with the U-2 spy plane? Did the military exaggerate enemy body counts and our progress in conquering Vietnam? Was Calvin Coolidge taciturn? If you have just returned from a long stay on Mars, or if this is your first history book, you'll be fascinated by such revelations, but for the rest of us, much of Republic of Spin is like going through back issues of U. S. News or The New Republic. Do you really want to read another detailed description of the Lewinsky affair? The obscure information his meticulous research has disinterred usually consists of the names of some forgotten men who staffed long-defunct offices, and is scarcely fascinating. The rest of the book is old news with no surprises.
In this Inside History of the American Presidency, Professor Greenberg misses many events worth recalling. Richard Nixon, for example, embarked on his "dirty tricks" campaign (which typically featured Pat Buchanan phoning several pizzerias to have many pizzas delivered to Democratic campaign offices - - that's the level of sophistication they operated at), because Nixon, a humorless man, had felt humiliated by the many pranks by his tormentor, Dick Tuck (who is still alive). During a rally for Nixon's unsuccessful 1962 campaign to be the Governor of California, for example, Nixon was to take the stage waving and smiling to the tune of "California, here I Come," but Dick Tuck had bribed the bandleader $50 to instead play "Mack the Knife." (There are numerous such anecdotes about Dick Tuck tormenting Nixon available on the Web, but many are apocryphal.) This is the only plausible explanation I can imagine for why Nixon, who even if he had done no campaigning at all was assured of a landslide victory against George McGovern, still felt it necessary to hire agents to sabotage and spy on the Democrats (and Daniel Ellsberg).
More shallowness is shown with two pages covering the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Lyndon Johnson's banal speeches denouncing "the North Vietnamese's" (no, that's not LBJ's patois, but another example of Greenberg's fine writing) "deliberate, willful, and systematic aggression . . . on the high seas" (all of which were imaginary), but nothing on the CIA's covert wars in Laos (where two million US bombs killed 200,000) and Cambodia - - Nixon's "secret plan" to end the conflict in SE Asia.
Amazingly, there is no chapter about our only unelected president, Gerald R. Ford, and he is mentioned in only one sentence. This neglects to cover the noble efforts to enhance Ford's image and PR. In response to Lyndon Johnson's widely-circulated assessment that Ford was so dumb that, "He can’t [walk] and chew gum at the same time,” Ford's handlers had him start smoking a pipe to appear professorial. Although Ford should be given some credit for allowing the Vietnam war to end, his most memorable deed in office was to distribute bright red WIN (Whip Inflation Now) amulets to ward off monetary inflation, which was then running at >10% - - surely an example of spin in its purest form.
To avoid too depressing a notice, I can report that the chapter on Calvin Coolidge is outstanding. If asked who the first Media President was, before reading this book I would've answered FDR, but Professor Greenberg (who has written a biography of Calvin Coolidge which surely must be far better than the one written by the delusional Amity Shlaes) provides interesting details as to how Coolidge was prepped and given voice lessons for speaking on the radio. That Coolidge gave frequent radio addresses explains why Sinclair Lewis, said to be a superb mimic, often entertained at parties by doing his Coolidge impersonation.
Unfortunately, Professor Greenberg instead prefers to relate the familiar anecdote about the woman at an Associated Press luncheon who said to Calvin Coolidge, "Mr. President, earlier this evening, I made a bet that I can make you say more than two words." You already know the punchline, but according to Quote Investigator, the story is likely apocryphal. You should not be surprised.
As a lover of history and biography, as well as authors who really know how to tell a story, this whopper takes the book down a peg or two, in my opinion.
It is, no doubt, an important topic. There's lots of good stuff in here for history buffs, poly-sci fans, and anyone worried for our country in this year of Trump ballyhoo.
But this was a big, nay, a YUGE blunder.
And what of the media in society? Could it empower the lowest common denominator and institute the “tyranny of the majority” through demagoguery? Is it even possible to be objective?, since no single person can know all (even reasonable) points of view on a major issue. Starting at a certain level of abstraction, is truth simply a matter of spin and bias? And when the media has what one regards as biased reporting – is it due to an honest bias?, or does it come from the dictates of the outlet owner on which positions their writers should be hired for or favor?
Given the role of the internet in articulately advancing so many opinions at odds with each other – in the future will it be possible to even produce consensus about anything meaningful?
I have previous purchased and tried to make my way through several books featuring Edward Bernays (Propaganda, Crystallizing Public Opinion, The Father of Spin). Past the first few chapters of nicely summarized insight I found them to become so full of routine minutia and pontification that they lost my interest.
“The Republic of Spin” traces the role of the media (newspapers, radio, TV), starting with Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. The vast majority of the book held me spellbound, with well thought out prose - ways of explaining and summing up. Only towards the end with the George W Bush and Obama administrations did it (sort of) start skimming and falling short of other books (like Frank Rich’s “The Great Story Ever Sold”) . A frank analysis of what is termed “political correctness” - in light of statistics on social pathology (our present day elephant in the room, our third rail of politics) is also missing. None-the-less, this book presents a culled set of history that’s hard to find summarized anywhere else. Five stars.