Date Posted: 2008
Edward Bernays, the founder of modern public relations, had the pleasure of counseling a winner when he did some PR work for Calvin Coolidge in 1924. It wasn’t the same story in 1932, when Bernays was called in to help the Herbert Hoover campaign convince the electorate that the American economy was on the rebound. “I suggested the formation of a committee I would advise,” Bernays recalled many years later. “Leaders of groups would be asked to support him.” In due course, a “Non-partisan Fact Finding Committee for Hoover sent telegrams to leaders in various occupations, asking them to support Hoover.” The results were mixed. One of those solicitous telegrams is reproduced below, followed by responses from scholars at Amherst, Buffalo, Dartmouth, Harvard, Minnesota, Northwestern, Stanford, and Virginia. How much has public intellectual culture changed since Bernays served Coolidge and Hoover? Compare the letters on the following pages with, for example, the coverage of “Historians for Obama” at InsideHigherEd.com. What would Barack Obama’s historians — or Fred Thompson’s law professors, or John Edwards’s economists, or John Kerry’s Nobel Prize winners — say if they thought about the roots of their own behavior? One view is that “groups of citizens, self-defined by occupation or ideology or ethnic group or religion or gender, have been doing this since the late 19th century,” and scholars publicly plumping for presidential candidates are simply carrying on this important tradition, “in which voluntary associations thrive and take the obligations of citizenship seriously.”3 But for good or ill this academic politicking also perpetuates a powerful 20th-century tradition: the presentation of carefully selected academic opinions as expert consensus for the purpose of swaying public opinion. Bernays’s PR genius lives on.