Nov. 4, 2002
-- It's been around since -- well, maybe since the beginning of man. But it's only had a name for about 20 years. It's not quite lying. It's not quite the truth. It's spin.
In his book, Safire's New Political Dictionary
, lexicographer William Safire defines spin as "deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction." In today's media-saturated political climate, the distinction between politics and spin might seem superfluous. But during the presidential election of 1984, thanks to a growing news media coupled with creative and quick-witted campaign officials, it was a certified phenomenon.
For Morning Edition
, NPR Senior National Correspondent Linda Wertheimer
points her microphone toward the debates of that year, between President Ronald Reagan and his challenger, Walter Mondale. As part of NPR's ongoing series on the origins of American icons, Present at the Creation
, she travels back in time to uncover the truth behind "spin."
Elizabeth Bumiller witnessed the Reagan-Mondale debates firsthand. In a story for The Washington Post
, she described the pandemonium that ensued after each candidate had abandoned his podium. "It was very intense. I just remember these clumps, masses of reporters around each clump," she says.
"All the candidates' spokespeople, staff, campaign managers, would start saying 'He won, let me tell you why he won and all the great points he made.' [I remember] a lot of Lee Atwater gesturing, making his arguments like a court case. It looked important."
Atwater, who served on many campaigns, including Reagan's trek to the 1984 election, is generally remembered as the superstar of spin, the inevitable man at the center of that great clump of reporters with outstretched microphones. Atwater, who died in 1991, was a perfect example of what Jack Rosenthal of The New York Times
described, in an editorial that ran Oct. 21, 1984, the day of the final debate, as "Spin Doctors."
In his Dictionary
entry on "spin," Safire cites Rosenthal's editorial as the first use of the word in its new definition. But Lyn Nofziger, who served as Reagan's press secretary in 1981 and worked alongside Atwater on the 1984 campaign, remembers Atwater himself using the word after the first debate between the candidates two weeks earlier.
"Lee was telling us, 'Now, we're going to want to go out there and spin this afterward,'" Nofziger remembers. "Meaning making it look like Reagan had won the debate, which normally wouldn't have been hard to do, but that debate was kind of a disaster for Reagan."
Nevertheless, the president's campaign officials handed out quotes that worked in Reagan's favor, with Mondale's people right next to them, working on behalf of their candidate.
Dayton Duncan worked spin for Mondale's campaign in 1984. Part of that year's spin explosion can be chalked up to natural human tendency to fudge the truth. One early example? Duncan suggests Adam taking a bite of the apple and then blaming Eve for what happened next. But another reason, he says, is that part of the business of spinning was just providing a voice for all the microphones that were out there. "We had invited governors, mayors, supporters of Mondale to be at the debate and sent them out to a waiting press corps," he recalls.
But just why were there so many reporters?
"Every local TV would show up partly to justify the cost of their satellite truck," Duncan says. "[They were] desperate to have somebody go on camera to say their candidate had done well. Local TV was happy to have their local governor or mayor to do the interview. It was a classic case of demand creating supply. Reporters were trapped needing somebody to say something. We flooded the area."
Jack Rosenthal says spin started to thrive under the conditions created by CNN and news radio, whose 24-hour updates rendered weekly commentary obsolete. With the news cycle shrinking, he says, "You needed to get effects into play instantly. You couldn't wait to go to your favorite columnist. It had to be instant, so you created your own columnist. Create your own wave of opinion -- your own spin."
Read about another political icon in the Present at the Creation
series: The Capitol Dome
Learn about the origins of the term "spin."
Read a 1984 Jim Lehrer interview with Lee Atwater
on campaign strategy.
Read a biography of Dayton Duncan
, who worked for Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984.
Read a transcript
of the Oct. 7, 1984, Reagan-Mondale debate.