You wouldn't have thought it possible early this year that spin could play an even larger role in American life than it already did. Straight-talking politicians (John McCain) were all the rage, and trendoids assured us that in the larger culture as well, sincerity was in while irony was out. But 2000 turned out to be a milestone year for the Great American Spin Machine. It was no surprise that spin was more copious than ever during the election campaign; it is more copious than ever in every election campaign. What made 2000 a special year for spin was the postelection recount crisis.
Spin is sometimes dismissed as a simple euphemism for lying. But it's actually something more insidious: indifference to the truth. Spinning means describing a reality that suits your purposes. Whether it resembles the reality we all share is an issue that doesn't even arise.
A small example of the distinction between spinning and lying occurred when Dick Cheney had his latest heart attack. George W. Bush told reporters, "Secretary Cheney is healthy. He did not have a heart attack." That would have been a lie if Bush had known otherwise. But his campaign aides said he hadn't been told, which is easy to believe. So it wasn't a lie. It was just spin. Journalists would have leaped on evidence that Bush knew about Cheney's heart attack, but they didn't care that he spoke without knowing anything one way or another. They hate the liar but love the spin.
The belief that politicians are liars is so widely cherished that it is almost part of America's civic religion, along with that stuff about being created equal. But outright whoppers by politicians are fairly rare. Not every year produces a classic like President Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The lie most discussed in 2000 was Al Gore's alleged claim that he invented the Internet, which is an exaggeration of what he really said and is hardly a central issue anyway.
Americans are right to feel that our political culture is infused with dishonesty. We are obsessed with fibbing about facts because this is less elusive than the real problem, which is intellectual dishonesty. This means saying things you don't really believe. It means starting with the conclusion you wish to reach and coming up with an argument. It means being untroubled by inconsistency between what you said yesterday and what you say tomorrow, or between standards you apply to your side or the other guy's. It means, in short, spin.
The Florida recount was five weeks of spin overload. The sheer volume of the stuff (in the sense of both quantity and noise level) was impressive enough. Consider as well how effortlessly the spin machine handled all the hairpin turns. Every amazing development and reversal in the drama was converted within minutes into two or three talking points for each side to repeat without mercy.