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All the President's Spin

By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan
Touchstone, 338 pp., $14 (paper)

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In their new book All the President's Spin, Spinsanity.com bloggers Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan lift the curtain -- and meticulously dissect the bloated, spun-out corpse of American governance.

 

Take a January 2002 appearance on Meet the Press by then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. In a memo reproduced in the book, O'Neill is coached beforehand by flack Michele Davis: "The first several questions are likely to be about the state of the economy -- without [host Tim] Russert mentioning the President's agenda or anything else related to Washington. You need to interject the President's message, even if the question has nothing to do with that."

 

A preoccupation with image is nothing new; we recall 1960's radiant JFK versus clammy-looking Nixon. A great leap forward in presidential public relations came with Ronald "facts are stupid things" Reagan, furthered by Bill Clinton's famous compulsions for polling and other activities.

 

Yet All the President's Spin argues that Bush and Co. have managed to deceive the American public more than previous administrations -- brilliantly, by seldom lying outright. Instead, their carefully worded statements convey by insinuation (as in their conflation of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden) what they don't dare say plainly.

 

Shouldn't the press be catching Bush? Even before the press' post-Sept. 11 lobotomy, the administration craftily exploited the news media's systemic weaknesses.

 

The biggest of these is "objectivity," which has come to mean giving everyone his or her say, even if that "say" is misleading. Meeting modern spin with objectivity is like setting out a chess timer at a guerilla war.

 

Once spin begins, unwinding it is tricky. Reading the dissection in this book, it dawns on you why most news writing and commentary doesn't meet the trio's standards: It would be boring. The tidbit of truth is a needle in a haystack, and tracing the spin's evolution into falsehood is a valuable but tedious task. Many citizens wouldn't have the patience.

 

Though I admire the authors' good-government meticulousness, a public willingness to call bullshit would stop spin before it spreads. As with negative campaigning, politicians will spin as long as it works. But unlike a negative ad against a candidate they disagree with, most normal people -- outside PR's Emerald Cities -- take no dirty pleasure in spin.

 

Something like this, though, would be a pleasure: While watching Paul O'Neill become a Stepford Wife on TV, Big Russ Jr. gives him a steady look, then says, "C'mon Paul, you know that's a load! Now talk like you did during the commercial."

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