‘Doctors’ on Call : Analysts Put Spin on ’88 Campaigns
After the presidential candidates’ debate the public saw on television ended Tuesday night, a second presidential debate the public didn’t see began.
Onto a stage at the Kennedy Center poured professionals of a type known on the campaign trail as “spin doctors.” As the reporters arrived from the pressroom backstage, the doctors began to operate.
“Who won?” one reporter shouted to William E. Brock III, campaign manager for Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
“Spin doctor!” shouted another reporter. “Is there a spin doctor in the house?”
Over the next 45 minutes, the spin doctors who work for each candidate tried to tell the press how to interpret what they had just seen.
Political operatives trying to manipulate the press is hardly new, but such spin control is distinct from staging an event for the cameras or granting special access to friendly reporters.
Telling What It Means
Spin control is the subtle art of massaging reporters’ minds after the event. The “doctors” try to control the interpretation, or “spin,” the reporters will put on their stories.
In the operating room of the spin doctors, it is not the event that counts. What is real is how the event is perceived.
“It’s not who won the debate anymore that matters, it’s who won the spin war afterward,” said The Times’ political analyst William Schneider, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute.
Though it has existed for several presidential elections, spin control is an idea come of age this year because of the growing number of presidential debates.
“We were spinning in ’76. Nobody called it that back then,” said longtime political consultant Robert Squier. “It used to be inappropriate to come into the press room. We used to hover out in the hallway and people would come out and huddle with us.”
At Tuesday’s debate, however, the spin doctors, one to a candidate, were granted pressroom credentials and started spinning even before the speakers had finished.
Haig Attack Defended
During the commercial break following former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s tough questioning of Vice President George Bush, for instance, Haig Press Secretary Dan Mariaschin told reporters that Haig’s attack was defensible because the six Republican candidates are “not running as a sextet. If candidates can’t show the differences between themselves, then why have a race at all?”
Campaign operatives consider debates particularly fertile ground for spinning because they are difficult to analyze and can leave reporters open to suggestion. And debate audiences, campaign officials believe, are especially inclined to consider post-debate expert opinions before they make up their minds.
“A very large portion of the audience has no concrete reaction because they do not have enough contextual information to make a judgment,” said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. “So their opinions are mostly shaped by what the anchormen tell them or what the newspapers say the next morning.”
That lack of confidence may extend to some of the burgeoning corps of campaign reporters, many of whom are inexperienced.
“It’s part of the whole decline of journalism,” political columnist Robert Novak said. “Nobody (in the press corps) has any faith in their own opinions anymore. Can you imagine H. L. Mencken asking a political functionary--saying ‘what did you think?’ ”
Consider this exchange between consultant Squier, whose firm as yet is not under contract to any presidential candidate, and a reporter from a New York newspaper following the debate Tuesday:
“I missed that, Bob,” said the reporter, scribbling in her notebook. “You said Bush went up a little, Dole went down a little?”
Squier looked at the reporter, shrugged, and said: “Yeah.”
Squier ascribed the spin-control phenomenon to changes in technology, particularly the increased live coverage of political events.
“If you are a reporter covering an event that people have already seen, you have to bring something more to it,” Squier said. “So you start asking the campaign people what their strategy was and how they thought they did.”
Others worry, however, that spin doctoring is pushing political campaigns even further from the issues and toward an emphasis on image.
“Frequently, events matter less than what is now widely referred to as spin control--who in which campaign can explain why something doesn’t mean what it seems,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said this week in a speech criticizing media coverage of political campaigns.
“It’s almost to say the candidate is not trusted to be articulate enough to express his own views,” said former NBC newsman Marvin Kalb, now director of the Institute of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “You have to have the spin doctor run into the press room and say, ‘You know what the candidate meant to say is this. . . .’ I find the spectacle dismaying.”
Now, a new species of spin doctor, whom Squier calls the “free spinner,” is emerging. These are political professionals, like Squier, not formally affiliated with specific campaigns, who offer their expertise to the press and are often paid analysts. Squier is under contract to NBC.
These pundits are becoming so important that Democratic contender Bruce Babbitt’s campaign tried to prepare the “free spinners” in the days before Tuesday for the former Arizona governor’s tactic of standing up during the debate to dramatize his call for tax increases.
By explaining their debate strategy--and even hinting of something dramatic--to people such as former Walter Mondale campaign manager Bob Beckel, who is now widely quoted as a political analyst, the Babbitt campaign hoped to influence the spin offered by these neutral spinners, Babbitt Press Secretary Michael McCurry said.
And McCurry set to spinning himself just outside the pressroom. “I thought it worked. I think we had the moment of the debate.”
Many spinners, however, disagreed.
Illusion of Neutrality
“These independent spinners are the most dangerous of all,” said Novak, because they give an illusion of neutrality although most of them are friends of certain candidates, perhaps informal advisers. And, due to the fluidity of campaign staffing, they may soon become staff members themselves.
“The idea of asking a campaign official how your guy did is ludicrous,” said Novak. “What do you expect they’ll say? ‘Well, I thought we did great.’ ”
Indeed, some of the spin doctors’ diagnoses Tuesday seemed curiously similar.
“He was clear, he was precise, he was strong,” campaign manager Brock said of his man, Dole.
“He was strong, clear and very precise,” Press Secretary Arlie Schardt offered of his man, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.).
Yet spinning can work, because events such as debates are not like football games with clearly marked scores. They are subjective. It is up to the reporters to decide whose spin to buy.
Several Democratic spin doctors Tuesday attacked Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, the leader in the Iowa polls.
“Simon collapsed,” said a spin doctor for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke, curiously, on the condition that his name not be used.
Simon’s “arithmetic (on the budget) remains a question to a lot of us,” said Ed Reilly, pollster for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Gore’s spin doctor, Schardt, claimed that his man took the advantage in a heated exchange with Gephardt over their voting records on taxes.
Gephardt’s spin doctor, Reilly, claimed victory in the same exchange.
Dole campaign manager Brock tried to spin the Republican side by dismissing most of the other candidates as irrelevant. “We’re in a dead heat with George Bush and no one else is in the race.”
Bush Press Secretary Pete Teeley said that “nobody really laid a glove” on his man.
At the cocktail reception in the atrium of the Kennedy Center much later, the second level of spin control already had begun.
The campaign officials pumped reporters for their own opinions of the debate. They also asked reporters what they had heard from the free spinners, whose opinions are thought to carry more weight.
The campaign operatives were assessing how well their spins had sold, and what revised spin might be necessary. This could be called follow-up spin research.
The real operating room for the doctors Tuesday, however, was the stage of the Eisenhower Theatre immediately following the debate.
“A much better show than the debate,” NBC news commentator John Chancellor called it.
“This is like a cocktail party, it’s so crowded,” Newsweek correspondent Eleanor Clift said.
And, after half an hour, a reporter from a Boston newspaper wandered away, looking dazed.
“I think I’m spun out,” he said, and left.