Remember the Clinton crime bill? Two summers ago, the president fought a sudden-death grudge match against the National Rifle Association and its evil, pro-gun allies in Congress in order to ban assault weapons. He lost what looked like the final round, leading to much harrumphing about the Clinton presidency being kaput. But in dramatic, “Comeback Kid” fashion, Clinton somehow jumped back up off the canvas and proceeded to triumph over the forces of darkness.
The above sentences are by and large true, but unfortunately beside the point. The assault weapons battle was a spin fight, not a real one. The law, as passed by Congress, bans 19 types of semiautomatic guns but exempts another 650. The Federal Crime Control bill even exempts the guns it bans, if a person has sold one to a pawnshop and wants to buy it back.
The rest of the bill is a kind of fiction as well. It calls for $30.2 billion in new spending, but doesn’t include any appropriations for it. (The bill assumes Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government” program–another spin phenomenon–will somehow pay for it.) One of the most hotly contested aspects of the bill added a number of new death penalty provisions to the federal penal code. No one on either side of the debate saw fit to mention, however, that nobody has been executed in this country under the federal penal code for more than 30 years.
The World of Spin
The world of spin is one in which no one can dare take another’s words or actions at face value. As with deconstructionist literary criticism, a close postmodern family relation, spin culture denies the autonomy of any given deed or act of speech. War can be peace, freedom can be slavery, and ignorance can be strength, if a source close to the president deems it so, and the “other side” is given a chance to respond. (“Well, Ted, sure war is peace, but sometimes war is war, though I wouldn’t want to question the president’s judgment during a time of national crisis.”)
The most wonderful thing about the system, from the viewpoint of its inhabitants, is that it is both self-contained and self-perpetuating. Spin is the ultimate capitalist product: It disappears the minute it’s used. Effective spin creates its own counterspin, which, in turn, creates its own counterspin–ad infinitum. Even when it fails, as sociologist Todd Gitlin points out, the failure is good for the spin industry, the same way bad cars are good for the auto-repair industry. Spin troubleshooters rise at 6 a.m. to re-spin for Katie Couric what spun poorly with Ted Koppel on “Nightline” the night before.
Reporters rail against the phenomenon of a spin-driven White House, but they need it the way Tori Spelling needs “90210.” A landmark 1980 study of the Wall Street Journal found that, of the 188 news items the paper printed on a typical day, a full 45 percent were based on press releases. Without each side’s spin available for the taking, a reporter might actually have to go report for a living.
Nearly half of the people interviewed for this article could not answer my questions without confessing they were spinning their responses. When I told Washington Post political reporter Ruth Marcus I was working on an essay on spin, her first question was, “So what’s your spin on this?”
Spin and the Electorate
Lazy reporters are hardly the only people whose lives are spin-dependent. Without spin’s vaguely misleading comforts, voters would be forced to confront the absurd displacement of psychosocial anxiety we call politics in this country. Consider a world where politicians told the unvarnished truth. Here’s 1992’s final presidential debate:
Bush: “No, I don’t know what the inside of a friggin’ supermarket looks like. Why should I? I’m the goddamn president. I’m the leader of the Free World. I have a cook. He does the shopping. Or for all I know, they grow the food in the goddamn backyard. Excuse me, but just what the hell does any of this have to do with being president?”
Clinton: “Of course I preferred drinking beer at Oxford to fighting in a lousy war in some godforsaken jungle. Do I look stupid to you?”
Perot: “Yes, I made my fortune lobbying the government for insider deals, bending the law and taking advantage of the system I am now attacking. Does that make me a hypocrite? Only if anybody cares. And nobody does. I’m rich. I’m a success. End of discussion.”
Presidential debates provide laboratory-quality spin conditions. The candidates, on the whole, try to figure out just how much lying they can get away with. They don’t have much to lose. As former Bush press secretary Pete Teeley once told Time, “You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it.” If the press then points out an error, “so what? Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000, or 20,000.”
Failures of Spin
The 1994 Brazilian elections offered a frightening glimpse of a political system with inadequate spin capabilities. At a party rally, Finance Minister Rubens Ricupero, in front of what he believed to be a cold microphone, said, “Just between us, it might seem presumptuous, but the government needs me a lot more than I need it.
“I have no scruples,” he continued. “What is good, we take advantage of. What is bad, we hide…. Every once in a while you have to create confusion.”
Lacking the help of an experienced spinmeister, Ricupero was unable to convince reporters he had made these comments “out of respect” for the voters, or as part of a secret plan to uncover his opponents’ spies among the technical staff. Instead, he quit, complaining that his statements had been “taken out of context.”
Generally, the “out-of-context” excuse shows you are dealing with the spin-impaired. Pat Robertson tried it when seeking to explain the thesis of his 1991 book, The New World Order, which claimed that Jewish bankers, providing “the link between the occult and the world of high finance,” are attempting to rule the world in conjunction with the Masons–having plotted the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Federal Reserve (among others). Similarly, one reason David Duke never became governor of Louisiana was that, asked to explain why he told the New York Times he still believed in “the basic fundamental view” of the Ku Klux Klan, he couldn’t manage a more convincing answer than the “out-of-context” excuse.
A Brief History of Spin
As with floods, starvation, and pestilence, spin has cursed virtually every human epoch. Its results, however, have not been uniformly horrible. The Talmud, the text that guides the lives of all religious Jews, is a rabbinical spin on the Bible. The New Testament is the early Christian spin of same, written pretty much simultaneously. Six hundred years later, the Islamic prophet Mohammed spun many all-but-identical stories into the Koran. Shakespeare’s Richard III is an extremely nasty Tudor spin on the House of York.
American political spin is older than the country itself. Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn explains our revolution largely on the basis of spin placed on King George’s actions by colonial pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine. Once George Washington’s government got moving, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson formed competing factions replete with competing newspapers for spin purposes. Hamilton started the Federalist New York Post, while Jefferson coaxed his friend, revolutionary poet Philip Freneau, to begin the equally biased National Gazette, by promising him a $250-a-year clerkship at the State Department, and offering him consistent leaks of all Jefferson’s correspondence.
Spin in the 20th Century
The spin components of American politics were always present, but generally kept under manageable proportions. In headier days, when the so-called Wise Men of the American establishment conceived and executed America’s Cold War strategy in the years after World War II, they were spinning like Little Richard. But the Wise Men had a passion for anonymity. Like Hamilton and Jefferson, but unlike their counterparts today, they spun on behalf of a political philosophy, or at least a coherent policy, rather than on behalf of their own image as the kind of people who conceive and execute such things. In this context, spin has been an essential component of American strategy and foreign policy ever since we became a great power.
During the Cold War, American presidents found it necessary to fight entire spin wars. Harry Truman fought the North Koreans and the Chinese to prove to the Russians we would defend Europe. John Kennedy threatened to detonate Cuba to demonstrate his willingness to defend Berlin. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon fought the Vietnamese and the Cambodians to prove we were willing to defend our interests–though we had a hell of a time explaining what these had to do with Vietnam. Following that debacle, the irrepressible Henry Kissinger attempted to convince Congress to try the whole thing over again in Angola.
What distinguished Nixon and Kissinger, aside from their general sickness of mind, was their insistence upon spinning themselves above and beyond what was necessary to achieve their political goals. Nixon held spin National Security Council meetings for NBC cameras, only to repeat the process the next day when the real decisions would be made. He ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to take spin notes on key Cabinet decisions, like that to invade Cambodia, to fool future historians into believing he had heroically disregarded his mealy-mouthed advisers’ caution, even when they supported him.
Having been fooled too many times, however, and without the Cold War to keep it in line, the media outgrew its quisling role. “Relations,” notes ABC news White House correspondent Brit Hume, “became far more intense and less intimate.” Those spinmeisters who fed reporters a continuous diet of tasty, varied, and semi-exclusive anecdotes could become a Lee Atwater or a James Carville, replete with cell phones and groupies. Those who ignored or mistreated the media, on the other hand, might wake up to 2,000 stories about a $200 presidential haircut (which, it turns out, did not hold up any planes at LAX).
No matter what political problems they deserve, the Clintonites have vastly exacerbated their difficulties by failing to understand the difference between what kind of spin they can get away with in a campaign, and what is allowable in the White House. When on the defensive, the Clintons sometimes behave as if it’s enough to avoid perjury charges, as opposed to actually convincing anyone of their case. If Hillary Clinton’s nearly $100,000 profit on cattle futures had been revealed during the heat of the campaign, the complex story probably would have died within a day. But when, either out of ignorance or the misplaced notion that the media enjoys being treated like a bunch of idiots, staff members explained to reporters that Hillary had gained her expertise in the arcane realm of futures trading by reading the Wall Street Journal, they spun a minor embarrassment into a major political crisis.
Of course it may seem uncharitable to blame Clinton for confusing governing with campaigning when the media (trained by Nixon and Kissinger) treats even decisions of war and peace as spin strategies. Last January, for example, the New York Times reported that Clinton has “used a string of foreign-policy successes to portray himself as a peacemaker. This pose is intended to send a subliminal message to Clinton’s doubters that the very character traits that worry them–Clinton’s desire to conciliate, his constant compromising–can be the core components of an effective leadership style.”
“Leadership style,” you see, is the issue. And you thought Bosnia had something to do with Bosnians dying.
So far, this year’s political fireworks have been–as usual–spin fireworks. The budget battle, which closed the federal government and cost taxpayers billions, was correctly perceived by its combatants as a public relations war. The Republicans quit not because they thought they were wrong or they didn’t have the votes, but because the media fight was spinning away from them. (Gingrich committed a particularly damaging form of spin self-mutilation when he admitted he’d decided to shut down the government because Clinton had hurt his feelings on Air Force One.)
The issues in the budget fight were never what either side purported them to be. The size of government? Changes to Medicare and Medicaid? The future of environmental protection? Come now. As Gingrich laid it out to White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, “Our guys figure they’ve probably taken your best hits on Medicare and they don’t have much more to lose. You hit us with $30 million in advertising, but frankly, when we came back and won California, that made them think that a lot of this stuff isn’t going to stick at election time.”
Presidential assistant Pat Griffin replied that Gingrich had the spin all wrong. “We have a situation,” Griffin explained, “where a lot of our guys are polling around the clock–and this is working for them. They blame the shutdown on you. Makes you look like extremists.”
Gingrich’s overspin on the budget fight, ironically, provided the White House with a plausible re-election strategy, when it’d had none before. The congressional Republicans forced–literally forced–the White House to take the balanced budget issue (itself a spin phenomenon) away from the Republicans. The essence of Clinton’s re-election campaign became simply: “Yeah, I’m a conservative too. I’m just not crazy, like those nuts in the Republican Party.” (When asked if this were, in fact, Clinton’s re-election plan, a White House aide replied, with a smirk, “That’s what you Mother Jones types would like to think it is.”)
Spin and the Election
The Republican primary campaign has spun almost into virtual reality. Pat Buchanan, a longtime spinmeister, invited the press into the studio to cover the scripting and filming of his commercials, as if this was what a “real” campaign consists of. Lamar Alexander attacked Bob Dole in New Hampshire for not doing enough “TV shows.” Both Dole and Alexander based their appeals to voters on the “positive” quality of their campaigns, as though the content of their ideas was an irrelevant aside.
The Republicans’ success in the 1994 elections has put GOP candidates in a difficult position in 1996, spinwise. Democratic grassroots organizations, dispirited by the political direction of the country (and fearful of the legions unleashed by the Buchanan campaign), have pretty much agreed that conservative Bill Clinton is the best hope for avoiding a political apocalypse in November. They are not likely, therefore, to get in the way of the “do nothing, say nothing, look presidential” spin strategy devised for Clinton by adviser Dick Morris.
Republican activists, on the other hand, have their eyes on their respective prizes, however contradictory. Social conservatives are fighting with economic conservatives, isolationists with neo-Cold Warriors, protectionists with free traders, flat-taxers with tax traditionalists–and no one appears ready to settle for anything less than total victory.
Ronald Reagan was able to paper over these differences with red-meat rhetoric for the right-wing masses and baskets of goodies for the party’s corporate sponsors. But Pat Buchanan and his allies in the fundamentalist churches and the militias command too many troops to be expected just to swallow fat and gristle this time.
The Republican Party faces a spin problem of epic proportions. Given the strength of its extremist factions and the revealed weakness of its corporate center, Dole will be forced to enunciate–as sincerely as he can fake it–a litany of promises likely to sink any hope of election.
Republicans cannot hope to beat Clinton with a candidate who is on record wanting to outlaw abortion, legalize assault weapons, destroy any remnant of the progressive income tax, and cut Medicare. Even Accuracy in Media chair Reed Irvine admitted as much recently when he told a convention of conservative activists, “If you expect to beat Bill Clinton on the issues, well, then…” He could not bring himself to finish the sentence.
Savvier Republican spin doctors recognize that their patient is in an extremely vulnerable state. Their only hope is to spin the campaign away from real issues like abortion and taxes into those areas where the party seems less threatening and more “mainstream.”
In extended conversations with these men–and they are all men–a spin strategy emerges that seems designed to convince Americans simply to look the other way: Demonize “Washington” as an alien city filled with “skeptics,” “pundits,” “experts,” “doubters,” “insiders,” “liberal media,” and the all-purpose “establishment.” The Republicans will focus only on issues like affirmative action, school choice, tort reform, and “parental rights,” in an effort to unite conservatives with Reagan Democrats in a “leave us alone” coalition.
Americans like the idea of being left alone. But they learned to like it when, economically speaking, we were a country of winners. Today, we appear to be a nation of whiners. Farmers whine about “government interference” while they demand taxpayer handouts; corporate chieftains grow fat on government subsidies as they lecture single mothers on “self-reliance.” Progressives, meanwhile, have lost the ability to speak to, much less organize, the grassroots, and spend more time kvetching to one another than honestly attempting to rethink their mistakes and plot new strategies.
That Pat Buchanan is the only candidate speaking to the central issue of American politics–the power of global capitalism to destroy our communities–ought to be unimaginably insulting. But the truth is, the only candidates likely to deal with the central problems of American politics in the 1990s will be those immediately relegated to the margins (be they right or left, Jesse Jackson or Pat Buchanan), so long as all political problems are defined, exclusively, as problems of “spin.”
Eric Alterman is a contributing writer to Mother Jones. His piece on Labor Secretary Robert Reich appeared in the August 1995 issue.