October 21, 2016

The 1984 presidential debate that launched the term “Spin Doctors” – and a famous quip...

Nowadays, most people are familiar with the term “spin doctors.” I think they’ve been more omnipresent than ever during the 2016 presidential campaign, though few people know how they got that name.

The term is used to refer to the professional political consultants, PR gurus and media commentators who create or utter statements designed to influence public perceptions of politicians, events, corporations and organizations.

The connection between the word spin and things that are tricky or misleading 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 phrase.

As documented by language maven William Safire in his New York Times column and noted in a fascinating story on NPR radio, 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 somewhat tired and confused. Mondale gave the stronger performance.

Reagan remained ahead on the polls after that debate. But some pundits speculated that if Reagan “lost” a second debate — or seemed lost during the debate — it could spell trouble for him when voters cast their ballots on November 6th.

An editorial published in the New York Times on the day of the second debate predicted that the candidates’ surrogates would work fast and hard to make it seem like their candidate won, no matter what happened.

The first paragraph of the editorial 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 advisors 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.”

Reagan and Mondale’s PR people did indeed try to put their spin on the outcome after the debate. But the real outcome was that Mondale failed to gain any significant ground in the polls and Reagan uttered the most memorable line of the night.

One of the debate moderators, 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 quotations, saying:

“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 laughed and applauded 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.’”

There is no record of Seneca, 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 viewed as problems by the majority of American voters.

On November 6, 1984, Reagan was reelected by an overwhelming margin. He carried 49 of the 50 states, 59% of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes out of 538 — the highest number of electoral votes ever received up by any American president.

Looking at the current political landscape, I think it’s a win record that is unlikely to be broken in the foreseeable future.

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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