My five-year-old son Adam can be a handful. He’s smart and funny but he’s always had his own ideas about the way the world ought to work, and those ideas don’t always mesh with everyone else’s. When he was a toddler we started getting all these notes from the day care along the lines of “Your child bit a friend today; please help him work on other ways to express his feelings.” But Adam was perfectly happy with his own methods of self-expression. We did try: we tried Sunday school, time out, lots of talks. But none of it took—until Adam discovered John Kerry. And that’s why I believe in spin.
In the summer of 2004, when he was two-and-a-half, Adam got an American flag as a party favor. He named it John Kerry. That seemed a little out-of-the-blue. But then I realized Adam spent a lot of time with me, watching the news or listening to NPR, and that somehow, as a result he had soaked up everything the Democratic party’s spin doctors were saying about John Kerry to the point that he’d basically conflated Kerry and the American flag. Soon he was calling all flags John Kerry, all the while also understanding that John Kerry was an actual person, whom he was very excited to see on TV.
And then one day Adam said to me, “Mama, John Kerry is a very nice man, and he would never bite anyone or hit anyone or spit on anyone.” I agreed, and then, crudely seizing my chance, asked Adam if he wanted to be like John Kerry. He said he did. And he meant it. For at least the next six months, whenever things got sticky between Adam and the rest of the world, I’d ask him what he thought John Kerry would do, and he’d think about it and try really hard to live up to Kerry’s example. The carefully-crafted version of John Kerry who spent so much time on the airwaves in 2004 didn’t get the Democrats into the White House, but it did give my son Adam a moral exemplar that he could both comprehend and emulate.
So I believe in spin. I don’t doubt that John Kerry really is a wonderful person. But no one is as spotlessly, heroically virtuous as the John Kerry Adam got to know. That John Kerry was made up by PR flacks whose job was to sell him to us as a more-appealing alternative to George Bush.
Spin has a bad rap. And I don’t deny that it can distort the truth in sometimes-dangerous ways. But it also functions as a kind of national conscience, reminding us what a good person is supposed to be like and keeping our collective ideals and higher aspirations at the forefront of the national discourse.
Which is great, because my three-year-old’s started pushing the boundaries a lot lately. Luckily, the ’08 election is coming up just in time to set him straight.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.