October 21, 2012

The presidential debate that generated the term “Spin Doctors” – and a famous quip...

Today, most people are familiar with the political term “spin doctors” and know that it refers to the professional consultants and pundits who try to influence perceptions of politicians, events, corporations and organizations.

The association between the word spin and things that are untrue, misleading or tricky is fairly old.

The use of the expression “spin a yarn,” in the sense of telling a tall tale, goes back at least to the early 1800s.

And, for more than a century, pitchers have been putting spin on baseballs to trick batters.

But “spin doctor” is a more recent creation.

As documented by language maven William Safire and noted in a fascinating story aired on NPR radio in 2002, that term was first used in a New York Times editorial published on October 21, 1984.

The topic was the televised debate scheduled that night between President Ronald Reagan, who was running for reelection, and the Democratic Presidential candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale.

It was the second of two presidential debates between Reagan and Mondale.

During the first debate, on October 7, 1984, many observers thought Reagan seemed a bit tired and confused and that Mondale gave a stronger performance that might boost his campaign.

Thus, the stakes were potentially high in the second debate.

The editorial in the New York Times that day predicted that political gurus on both sides would work rapidly to make it seem like their candidate had won.

The first paragraph said:

“Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room of the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs.”

Indeed, the spin doctors did their best after the debate. But the fundamental outcome was that Mondale failed to gain any additional ground and Reagan had the best zinger of the night.

Baltimore Sun reporter Henry Trewhitt asked Reagan about an issue he said had been “lurking” during the campaign — Reagan’s age. (President Reagan was 73 at the time.)

“You already are the oldest President in history,” Trewhitt said. “And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale…President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan responded with what became one of his most famous quotes:

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

The audience clapped and laughed loudly at Reagan’s quip.

Then Reagan added: “If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.’”

In fact, there seems to be no record of Seneca or Cicero or any other ancient Roman celebrity saying anything exactly like that.

However, as Latin scholar Chris Jones has noted on the excellent LatinLanguage.us site, there is a quote recorded by Cicero that comes close to what Reagan said.

In Cato Maior De Senectute, Cicero quotes Cato as saying: “The greatest states are made unsteady by the young, sustained and restored by the old.” (Also translated as: “The mightiest States have been brought into peril by young men…supported and restored by old.”)

At any rate, Reagan’s advanced age and somewhat fuzzy memory were not seen as problems by the majority of voters.

On November 6th, Reagan was reelected by an overwhelming margin, carrying 49 of the 50 states, 59% of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes out of 538 (the most ever received up by any American presidential candidate).

NOTE TO HISTORY BUFFS: To watch the entire October 21, 1964 Reagan-Mondale debate, click this link to the C-SPAN Video Library.

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