Q: How did you come up with the idea for Republic of Spin, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?--Marshal Zeringue
A: My first book was called Nixon’s Shadow. It’s not a biography of Nixon but a study of Nixon as a symbol…I came to see that although Nixon exemplified that [focus on image], it didn’t originate with him. Politics in the 20th century were consumed with anxieties about authenticity, and the way the tools of image-making—spin—were threatening to corrupt democracy.
No one had written a book about the White House spin machine, and pulled it all together into a single narrative…
As for what surprised me, I found that the standard narratives about certain historical episodes were wrong.
On an individual level, you could tell a story about how my research [shows] revisionist portraits: George Creel, who ran the Committee on Public Information, a World War I propaganda agency.
In the history books, Creel is made out to be a right-wing monster, whipping up hatred of Germans. In fact, Creel was a liberal guy attacked more by the right wing for being insufficiently jingoistic.
He was not wild and out of control. There were some excesses, but the backlash against Creel was buyer’s remorse about World War I. The war didn’t turn out the way we wanted, and people were looking for a scapegoat. The story of Creel was told wrong, over and over…
In one chapter of history after another, I found significant twists. Many historians suffer from propaganda anxiety. They’re not always clear-eyed in assessing [this issue]. We have an ambivalent attitude toward spin—we denounce spin doctors but deep down we like it if it’s wielded by politicians we support.
Just today, there was an article about negative ads about Trump. It was free of the scolding tone you get when you’re told about negative advertisements against Obama. It’s not the negative ads that people are against, it’s the negative ads against their candidates. If it’s deployed by a candidate or president we support, we applaud it, and don’t realize it’s spin.
Also, one reason I read the sources differently is that...[read on]