As America’s campaign intensifies, it is depressing yet reassuring to remember the contrast between campaign slogans and governing policies. Depressing, because we seem surprised to discover again and again that a politician’s promise is as reliable as a weather report—not always off but rarely precise. Reassuring, because many politicians often discard campaign trail idiocies with their buttons and bunting.
Woodrow Wilson’s campaign one century ago confirms the Grand Canyon-wide gap between campaigning and governing. In 1916, Wilson promised Americans peace despite Europe’s Great War with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” By 1917, America entered into that very war. The man Wilson turned to, to turn American public opinion around, was the long-forgotten George Creel, America’s first and perhaps still best, unofficial Secretary of Propaganda.
The Communists and the Nazis—who admired Creel—made propaganda so disreputable it long besmirched Creel’s reputation as a sleazy schemer. In fact, Creel was a high-minded reporter back when journalism was particularly dishonorable, and a patriot trying to save democracy not just peddle whatever lies a fickle public would swallow.
The son of a drunk whose family descended from slavery-fueled wealth during plantation days to post-Civil War poverty, Creel was born in still-war-ravaged Missouri in 1876. “Our poverty brought us close,” he would remember, speaking of his family, “for love was all we had to give one another, and the determination to justify [my mother’s] sacrifices and hopes developed ambitions.” Seeing his mother function as his father floundered led Creel to champion women’s rights: “I knew my mother had more character, brains, and competence than any man that ever lived.”
Creel started writing for the Kansas City World in 1898. These times would inspire the Pulitzer Prize-winning, cliché-creating The Front Page. Reporters relished being badly dressed and badly behaved truth tellers revealing the bad behavior of the well-dressed and not-so-well-dressed alike. Creel became an investigative journalist, a “muckraker,” but he lacked the stomach for the yellow journalists’ hit jobs. His first boss fired him for refusing to embarrass a local businessman by exposing the man’s daughter’s affair with her dad’s employee.
In 1912, when Woodrow Wilson ran for president, Creel was already a longtime fan. In 1916, Creel helped Wilson mount his “He Kept Us Out of War” re-election campaign, which pushed politics from bland, black-and-white, patriotic posters to snappy, four-colored campaign ads. That September, Creel’s book Wilson and the Issues justified Wilson’s war wariness.
When America entered the war, Wilson so feared dissidents rebelling that he contemplated imposing censorship. Creel advocated managing opinion, not quashing dissent. This breakthrough idea helped define the next century—and our lives today.
Creel established the Committee on Public Information, (CPI), mobilizing 150,000 American word-maestros to pitch America’s involvement in the war as necessary and noble. If the great baseball player Wee Willie Keeler “hit ’em where they ain’t,” Creel hit ’em, meaning Americans, wherever they were, in their homes, on the streets, and in the new popular culture palaces, movie theaters. Creel had the PR guy’s quick wit, improvisational ability, endless imagination, and ruthless sensitivity to American’s increasingly short attention span. Commandeering the four minutes projectionists needed to change movie reels, Creel and his people trained 75,000 citizens to deliver seemingly impromptu, carefully coached, perfectly timed four-minute pro-war harangues.
Linking Betsy Ross’s era with Mary Pickford’s, these “Four Minute Men” reinforced the powerful messaging coming from a newly empowered Washington, D.C., that Americans were doing what they needed to do to “make the world safe for democracy,” in this “war to end all wars.” “Conceive of your speech as a mosaic made up of five or six hundred words, each one of which has its functions,” the “General Suggestions to Speakers” urged, also noting “There never was a speech yet that couldn’t be improved” so “get your friends to criticize you pitilessly.”
Creel’s biographer, Alan Axelrod, explains that to Creel, propaganda “wasn’t a bad thing. He defined it as creating the faithful in a good cause.” Still, Creel had a heavy hand. He and his people pressured newspapers to follow wartime reporting guidelines. They produced rousing—and profitable—movies called Pershing’s Crusaders and Under Four Flags. They filled Americans’ mailboxes, billboards, and newspapers with images and slogans, including America’s “most famous poster”: Uncle Sam wagging his finger and proclaiming ungrammatically, “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY.” Under the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, the CPI’s pictorial division recruited soldiers, peddled Liberty Bonds, encouraged food conservation, and fostered patriotism. Creel would estimate his speakers delivered 755,190 talks to 314,454,514 Americans, papering the country with 1,438 different posters.
Alas, Creel overshot, thinking himself indispensable. When asked while speaking about what was happening in Congress, Creel snapped, “Oh, I have not been slumming for years.” “Uncle Joe” Cannon, the former Speaker of the House, said Creel “ought to be taken by the nape of the neck and the slack of the pants and thrown into space.” As soon as the war ended, the insulted legislators shut down the CPI. Creel felt guilty that his big mouth prevented him from helping Woodrow Wilson’s losing postwar battle over entering the League of Nations.
Moving west, living until 1953, Creel published more than a dozen books including two memoirs, one in 1920 called How We Advertised America and a second in 1947, Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years. He became a New Dealer in the 1930s, serving on the San Francisco Regional Labor Board, chairing the Works Progress Administration’s National Advisory Board, and losing a bid to be the Democratic nominee for California governor against Upton Sinclair. He also helped Mexico establish a Ministry of Public Information and Propaganda.
Creel remained proud of promoting the war effort, avoiding censorship, and minimizing anti-German demonization. In his memoirs, he admitted wanting to shape America’s “war will,” creating “a passionate belief in the justice of America’s cause that would weld the American people into one white hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage and deathless determination.”
Today, in a world perpetually twirled by spin-doctoring, it’s hard to blame Creel for our daily bombardment, Still, it’s worth remembering this pioneering image-maker’s role in America’s evolution from being of the people, by the people, for the people, to being of the people, by the spin doctors, for whatever product, person, or idea they are peddling.