Spin Won’t Save Trump

By David Greenberg

A fear is spreading fast in liberal circles, sowing almost as much panic as the novel coronavirus: the prospect that President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic could actually help him win reelection. True, the polls don’t really suggest this: Though Trump’s ratings have ticked upward (at least until recently), he lags behind the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, in matchups. Still, the mere fact that Trump’s derelict leadership hasn’t alienated huge swaths of Americans has planted the distressing thought: Could this crisis actually persuade swing voters to stick with the president in November?

Exhibit A that Trump might turn adversity into advantage is his daily news briefing. Derided by Trump critics as propaganda fests, these televised spectacles have garnered high ratings and offered Trump a platform to seem as if he’s in control. Democrats fear these rituals are doing what primary-night news conferences did for Trump in 2016: provide him with hours of free media to boast and preen and attack his critics. Combined with the “rally ’round the flag” effect (by which international crises goose the president’s popularity), they are seen as playing to Trump’s strengths and giving him an edge come November.

But this fantasy is a version of a fallacy that we can’t seem to let go: the idea that a president’s popularity is mainly a result of his communication skills, a function of how well he performs in the news media. We tend to imagine that incompetent politicians succeed because they hoodwink the public through their facility with the dark arts of public relations, that they spin their way from failure to triumph. But this gets the relationship backward. As a general rule, we don’t remember presidents as successful because they were skilled in messaging; on the contrary, we remember them as skilled in messaging because they were successful. And those who failed as president may be recalled as inept in the arts of public persuasion—but in fact, their communication deficits usually rested on much deeper failings.

A case in point is President Herbert Hoover. Because of his stupendously inept response to the Great Depression, Hoover is usually remembered as a terrible communicator—who lacked the compassion, warmth and ability to speak to ordinary Americans that characterized his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But early in his career, Hoover was widely deemed to be anything but inept; he was judged a veritable wizard with the new arts of what was often called “publicity” or “propaganda.” Walter Lippmann, the leading pundit of the day, wrote at the time, “Mr. Hoover’s ascent to the presidency was planned with great care and assisted throughout by a high-powered propaganda of the latest model.” Drew Pearson, another leading columnist, also branded Hoover “one of the great super-promoters of the age, a man who had been able by a consummate sense of publicity to create the illusion of heroism and greatness and to attain world acclaim.”

That acclaim rested in good part on Hoover’s skills at working the news media as Commerce secretary in the 1920s, under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. During the 1927 Mississippi flood—probably the worst natural disaster in American history until Hurricane Katrina—Coolidge allowed Hoover to take the reins, even though the president was mostly averse to federal government intervention in state matters. The Commerce secretary set up headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, and traveled up and down the river valley for three months, winning headlines and fawning reviews. The New York Times Magazine hailed his “genius,” and National Geographic ran a spread about his heroics, adorned with dozens of photographs of Hoover tending to the men, women and children who were displaced or otherwise affected by the flood. A pioneer in radio, Hoover broadcast his speeches over national networks, staging them so that his audiences around the country could hear the rushing river in the background, conjuring images of Hoover standing tall amid the crisis.

Hoover and his team also proved adept with the new medium of film. As his party’s presidential nominee in 1928, Hoover had his team produce an hourlong campaign film, “Master of Emergencies,” that surveyed his career as savior of the downtrodden, from his role in feeding desperate Europeans after World War I to his gallantry on the Mississippi. The footage included aerial shots of submerged river towns, profiles of a purposeful Hoover surveying the scene, and close-ups of grateful children. Will Irwin, a journalist and college friend of Hoover’s, helped script the film. Audiences, he told the nominee, “were sobbing all over the house. And when they cry, you’ve got ’em.”

Hoover, then, could have been expected to handle the news media as president as well as anyone who had served in the White House. But when the Great Depression came, Hoover dragged his feet in taking bold action, and in the absence of substantive results, his vaunted skill with the press and with media suddenly proved unavailing. In fact, the problem couldn’t really be boiled down to poor communication; he remained as modern and as dedicated a public relations president as America had seen. Washington correspondent Frederick Essary judged Hoover’s “White House publicity machine” to be “the greatest propaganda establishment in the world.” It produced, he noted with awe (and not a little derision) “daily presidential speeches, messages, proclamations, pronouncements, executive orders, appointments … guest lists, dinner and reception arrangements (not forgetting the flowers on the table), and tributes to deceased football coaches and foreign potentates.” The problem was that Hoover was extremely reluctant to take the bold steps necessary either to stimulate the economy or to provide relief to those thrown out of work. And in the face of the persistent bad economic news, Hoover’s exertions in the realm of public relations did little to restore him popularity.

Another gambit the president tried was to establish his own 12-page weekly newspaper—essentially a propaganda organ—that ran all sorts of pieces praising the president. Called Washington: A Journal of Information and Opinion Concerning the Operation of Our National Government, it included such fare as William Allen White praising the president as a “seer of visions” and “blood-brother to the great idealists of this generation.” Alas, it folded after three issues.

Hoover also enlisted the leading advertising and public relations experts of his time. Albert Lasker of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency, who had run Harding’s 1920 campaign, and Bruce Barton of BBDO, who had worked closely with Coolidge, gave advice. But neither could do much to help. Lasker told him, “You haven’t a dog’s chance of getting elected” and was banished from further consultations. Barton told him to do “as much fishing as possible for a while,” to show that things were calm in Washington. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Hoover also created an Emergency Committee for Employment and appointed to it the celebrated public relations expert Edward Bernays—a man who, as a rule, believed that no problem was impervious to a PR man’s wiles. But even Bernays threw up his hands when Hoover ignored the committee’s concrete recommendations, such as investing in a multimillion-dollar highway construction and public works program. Bernays told the president that he wasn’t a magician. The whole effort, Bernays concluded despondently, was “really a public relations committee.” The Nation magazine mocked Hoover’s policy of “Relief by Publicity,” editorializing that efforts pitched at the press were doomed so long as Hoover failed to design and implement a systematic plan for stabilizing the economic and providing succor to desperate Americans. Come 1932, he lost in a landslide to Roosevelt, who promised active intervention in the economy to help America through the depression.

Hoover was far from the last president to be hailed early as a public relations genius, only to learn that such skills were no substitute for effective policy. Lyndon B. Johnson, though now remembered as paling next to John F. Kennedy, was toasted at the start of his presidency as telegenic and commanding. (Lippmann, again, led the way, saying, “The president has no reason now to worry about himself as a performer on TV,” after an hourlong March 1964 interview with reporters from the big three networks.) But LBJ’s continued efforts to win over the news media did little to make up for a disastrous policy of escalation in the Vietnam War, which slowly sank his presidency.

Likewise, Jimmy Carter, believe it or not, was hailed as a “media genius” when he burst on the scene; a May 1977 cover of the New York Times Magazine showed a cartoon of Carter as a kind of all-powerful, behind-the-curtain wizard, operating a television studio console featuring images of himself on each of the networks. But when he proved unable to do much about the energy crisis, stagflation or Iran’s seizure of U.S. hostages, the new storyline became that of his fecklessness in getting his story told. George W. Bush, too, was deemed a master of image-craft and a shoo-in for reelection when he emerged on an aircraft carrier deck in a flight suit, proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” after the fall of Baghdad—only to be haunted by that very image and its attendant hubristic claim when the war in Iraq went south. Though Bush squeaked through to win a second term, his fall came quickly: Had the election been held just a year later, he doubtless would have lost—and he wound up with dismal approval ratings, around 25 percent.

The truth is, as Sophocles supposedly said, “A lie never lives to be old.” Politicians may be able in the short term to cover up their failed programs or weak leadership with clever messaging and images. But typically, over time, the effects of their actions make themselves felt on the general public, who generally can tell when a policy isn’t working. Hoover discovered this and, whatever the outcome of November’s election, Trump eventually will as well. If the poll numbers are any indication, the public may be on to the president’s spin already.