Jewish World Review June 16, 2004 / 27 Sivan, 5764
The (anti-) Reagan Revolution: De-spinning their spin
As the anti-coverage of Ronald Reagan's legacy begins, we're sure to see the word "spin" surface in much of the analysis. After all, the phrase "spin doctor" came into vogue around 1982, early in Reagan's tenure. I was a young aide in the White House at the time, and I recall it being used primarily by Democrats to define his sudden popularity. The implication was clear: Americans don't really like Reagan, he's just fooling everybody.
Spin is a term that is used as a proxy for disapproval: I don't like your politics therefore your success is fraudulent. I never believed Reagan or his team of handlers fooled anyone. In the more than two decades I have made a living as a consultant and a writer in the media communications field, I've concluded that you can only spin a public that wants to be spun. A "spin doctor" can only capture and reinforce pre-existing sentiments. It's not possible to force an audience against its will to embrace repugnant people and ideologies.
If Ronald Reagan was a floating, lovable Oz, the man most widely credited as its wizard behind-the-curtain was presidential assistant Michael Deaver. Deaver has said that Reagan himself was the communication genius and that all he did was "I lit him well."
I give Deaver more credit than that. He recognized something that that has become the staple of high-stakes communications ever since: One cannot allow a hostile medium to be the filter of a leader or his principles. Rather, marginalize that filter and go straight to the audience with whom one's "client" will best resonate. During Reagan's presidency, that hostile filter was the conventional news media.
Contrary to the nostalgic coverage of President Reagan's passing, the media did not like him during his tenure. Friends of mine in the press viewed him as an idiot, and were horrified that I took a job working for him. Many took the position that I had joined (albeit at a humble level) a colossus hell-bent on - and habitually successful - at deceiving the public.
A few contrary memories. When I first showed up for work at the in the summer of 1982, I distinctly recall President Reagan's motorcade being pelted with rocks. A recession was in full bore. I remember walking out the Northwest gate of the White House to be greeted by a young man my age. He wasn't wearing a suit like I was. Rather, he sported a green Mohawk, a leather vest with protruding metal spikes. He was hawking T-shirts that read "Reagan Hates Me." Not far away, there was a huge crowd of nuclear disarmament protestors who remained there for years. "Reaganomics Sucks" was the most popular placard quip, and the president's poll numbers were dismal.
In October, however, there was a stock market rally. The recession lifted. The very same pundits who had been calling for Reagan's impeachment, were now suggesting that his spin doctors had deceived America into liking Reagan.
The truth is much more banal. The White House had been doing what it always had done: Reagan was placed in settings that allowed him to communicate directly to the American public, rather than attempt to persuade a hostile news media to translate his policies for public consumption. This technique hadn't really begun to pay dividends until the economy turned around and people were in the mood to like their leader more.
It's not just Democrats who cry "spin" when things aren't going their way. The notion of Machiavellian spin doctors fooling the public returned to mainstream debate during the Lewinsky affair. This time, allegations of spin were hurled against the Clinton White House by Republicans furious at President Clinton's weathering of the scandal. Again, the implication was that Clinton's popularity was somehow fraudulent.
I believed - to the distress of my Republican friends - that Clinton's popularity was as authentic as Reagan's. The very same public that was titillated by the Lewinsky scandal largely believed that it didn't merit Clinton's removal from office. Americans, buoyed by a soaring economy, supported President Clinton.
All successful politicians are seducers or enchanters. Clinton seduced the public like the prom king while Reagan enchanted you by being the grandfather who saw you just as you wanted to be seen. How one feels about these qualities depends on, well, how one feels. A good handler will exploit a leader's greatest strengths and help him dodge his weaknesses. These exigencies play at the margins of public opinion, but are of little consequence if the public doesn't fundamentally like the leader and feel good about the operating climate of his times.
As reflections of "The Great Communicator" are commingled with charges of spin, we should remember that persuasion in any political direction only happens with the public's approval. Winning that approval extended from Ronald Reagan's gift for authenticity, not alchemy.
Eric Dezenhall is the author of the new political damage-control novel, Shakedown Beach. Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, Eric Dezenhall