Decoding The Melee Of The 'Spin Room'

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Republican presidential candidates met in New Hampshire to debate this week. Afterward, they engaged in the classic American tradition of spin.


The Spin Room might be a good name for an amusement park ride or part of a funhouse. That makes it a perfect fit for a presidential campaign, which can get a bit wacky even in these early days. This week in New Hampshire, many of the Republican candidates met on stage to debate, some for the first time.

It was also the first presidential debate for NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Afterwards, candidates, journalists and surrogates gathered in the famed Spin Room and here's a page from Ari's reporter's notebook.

ARI SHAPIRO: The idea of a spin room somehow seems at odds with journalism. After all, spin is basically propaganda, distortion. A whole room devoted to the art suggests a place where reality is what you make of it.

Case in point: A week before this debate, many of Newt Gingrich's top campaign staff quit as a group, taking a lot of his presidential momentum with them. Here's how that reality looked to Gingrich surrogate Kathy Lubbers in the Spin Room.

Ms. KATHY LUBBERS (President/CEO, Gingrich Communications): Yeah, the campaign is in a perfect place. And I'll tell you why. Because we are focused, we are all about Newt's campaign.

SHAPIRO: I went from one podium to another, sifting through heaps of pabulum looking for her grains of wisdom. In one corner, a surrogate for Congressman Ron Paul was being interviewed by John Oliver of "The Daily Show."

Mr. JOHN OLIVER (Comedian, "The Daily Show"): Your lips are moving but you're not saying anything.

SHAPIRO: Oliver said out loud what must've been going through many reporters' minds.

Unidentified Man: He clearly understood the issues of what caused this economic crisis, because inflation, the money supply and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: It's just so pointless.

Unidentified Man: ...increased spending...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: It's so pointless.

Unidentified Man: ...regulation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLIVER: It's just so meaningless.

SHAPIRO: I decided to seek guidance from an expert in the thick of the melee. Trey Grayson has served time in spin rooms and now he gets to observe it all as director of Harvard's Institute of Politics.

What am I supposed to get out of this moment exactly?

Mr. TREY GRAYSON (Director, Institute of Politics, Harvard University): They all won, right? You know, everybody telling you how great their candidates were.

SHAPIRO: In America, everybody is a winner.

Mr. GRAYSON: Yeah, they're all presidential candidates.

SHAPIRO: Not to be too earnest, but is there any actual value to this part of the show?

Mr. GRAYSON: You know, one thing that I thought was valuable is that I keep looking at the big crowd around Michele Bachmann's folks. And I think that's telling that the more people crowding around certain candidates and continuing to show around the candidates, I think that's telling us as to what the folks in this room thought about performance.

SHAPIRO: So what does it mean that this one, solitary blonde kid standing with the Herman Cain sign is all alone?

Mr. GRAYSON: Probably not a good night for Herman Cain.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain showed up. I caught another longtime Spin Room veteran on the periphery.

Mr. DANA MILBANK (Columnist, The Washington Post): I am Dana Milbank with The Washington Post.

SHAPIRO: So for me, as a novice to these sorts of things, do you have any advice for how to glean the most from the Spin Room?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, there's the hierarchy. If a candidate comes in to the Spin Room, you've got to grab that. So I'm looking now and seeing Herman Cain surrounded by more cameras than he's ever seen in his life.

SHAPIRO: Should I go listen to what he's saying? I mean, I've just been listening to him for two hours.

Mr. MILBANK: It is unlikely that the Hermanator has anything left to say that he has not said already.

SHAPIRO: Following Milbank's lead, I decided not to dive into the Herman Cain scrum. Who knows, I could have just missed an interview with the next president of the United States.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire.

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