David Finn

Boosting America’s Sagging Self Image

VTR Date: March 9, 1993

Guest: Finn, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Finn
Title: “Boosting America’s Sagging Self-Image”
VTR: 3/9/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is a very good and patient friend who has sat at this table before in his role as Chairman and CEO of Ruder Finn, one of the world’s largest independent public relations firms.

Now, I know that David Finn is quite so patient because of the forbearance with which he has borne up in past programs under my negative (though I trust not quite hostile) probing about public relations itself, about what others have referred to as “spin control,” “mass persuasion,” “the engineering of consent” … terms I know my guest would dismiss as less than realistic, more as signs of the hyperbole sometimes employed to hype PR’s presumed prowess in the manipulation of our minds.

Indeed, some years ago on The Open Mind David Finn quoted with pleasure the description of public relations as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

David then went on to say, “It looks terrible, it looks dangerous, it looks as if these guys can manipulate all kinds of things in the public mind, when in fact (PR) really is not that effective at all.” He went on to say, “I don’t like to undersell our business or our profession. I think we do a lot of good things in the world, and we’re good communicators, and I love the practice of public relations. But we don’t manipulate, and we cannot fool people. I mean Abraham Lincoln was right, and when … clients … have an idea that we can come up with any kind of a wonderful image for them … they’re wrong. We can’t.”

Well, by now my guest and I have gone on in various settings and at some length discussing the matter of imagery. But he particularly intrigued me early in 1993 with a piece in the Sunday New York Times concerning the need and the opportunity for our about-to-be inaugurated new President – as the article’s title read – to “Boost America’s Sagging Self-Image.”

Now, I couldn’t have agreed more. Yet I know that most historians had little noted nor long valued John F. Kennedy’s quite successful efforts to do just that three decades ago.

And so I want first to ask my guest today if, aside from those professionally concerned with our national psyche, he thinks there actually are many Americans sophisticated enough to do better with Clinton than with Kennedy at valuing such image boosting and morale building from the Bully pulpit that is the Presidency of the United States. And, David, that’s the question that I would first put to you. Do you think we’re wise enough, smart enough today to be able to understand the depth of importance of that image-creating, image-boosting.

FINN: Well, you know, Dick, what I’ve tried for many years to avoid the word “image” in, in my business. I wrote an article, as you may remember 30 years ago in Harper’s magazine called “Stop worrying About Your Image.” And John Fisher who was the editor said to me then, “are you trying to put yourself out of business?” And I said, “no, we don’t sell images.” He said, “well, what do you sell?” I said we try to help people see themselves as they are, as they want to be, as others see them and to try and plan ahead and plan their policies and actions having in mind their relationship to others and to society. I found that over the years my efforts to stop using the word “image” were not terribly successful, and in our business it continues to be used. And every now and then I catch myself using it. But I try to be careful about it because I know that a company can’t change its image by devices. It can, it can improve its, its position, its identity, its … the clarification of its vision. I like a phrase that the poet Yeats once said, “Man is nothing till he is united to an image.” And by that … I like that definition … by that he meant united to an image of what he’d like to be, of what he is, his, his deepest spirit. And, and Yeats thought that in that sense image was the most real thing about human life. Now I didn’t write the sagging self-image in my article for the Times that was a headline written by the headline writer.

HEFFNER: Do you accept it?

FINN: But I didn’t mind it. I didn’t mind it because I think self-image is better than image. Because we do see ourselves in a certain way, that we can, we can define … we can examine, we can think about. I’m not sure how … whether I make the same impression on lots of other people … I probably make different impressions on different people. And that’s true of corporations or countries. But I know that I have a certain underlying feeling about myself. And that can change. I can feel better about myself if things are going well, or I’m accomplishing something, or I can feel badly about myself, if I feel I’m failing or doing something that isn’t working out, or is wrong. So I think self-image is an interesting phrase, and I didn’t object to that. Now I’ve thought about America’s self-image, if we use that word, a lot. You know, you, of course, remember the book The Ugly American …


FINN: I looked at that this weekend again to see if my memory was correct, that the ugly American was the good guy in the book. And of course, he was. But the phrase, the ugly American was taken by … for national usage to mean that America’s bad way of dealing with Third World countries and the rest of the world ,… self-centered, uninterested in the local culture … domineering. So the ugly American was the bad American who just was the Ambassador who went to a country without knowing the language and without knowing the culture. That was what we thought of at one time. We thought we, we were ugly Americans. Now, I think, we think we’re over the hill Americans, that we’ve had it. We struggle to maintain quality, but we know we’re trying to play catch-up. We think we are. Our education system is terrible. We’ve had effort after effort, Presidential Commissions, money being spent, Mr. Whittle has been on this program talking about his ideas of education, and it gets worse and worse. The cities going down the drain. Crime getting worse. Drugs. You know, the litany is there, we all know it. And we have a feeling we’re not going to solve those problems. We’ve had that feeling for a long time. We’re not worried about the nuclear holocaust that, that traumatized us for decades, we don’t think the world may be coming to an end. But we think that we, our time has come. And we are just in a, in a depression … not so, in addition to the economy, about ourselves, and our society. I think a lot of that comes from the man who’s at the head … man or woman who’s at the head of an enterprise or the country. I think that that person, maybe that’s what we talk about when we mean leadership, that person gives us a sense of where we are and where we can go, where we should go. Kennedy did have that quality and he said, “I want to go to the moon by the end of this decade.” And we all laughed, and said “well, we’re going to finally get to the moon and it’ll be a Russian or Soviet flag, because they’re going to get there first.” But he said, “no, no, we’ll get there first.” And I mean that in itself is only symbolic. Symbols are important in our lives. So I say that I … I sense that with Clinton we have a man of vision, a man of intelligence, an articulate guy, a man who thinks, man who is a good salesman, a good politician. I don’t think we’ve had a President like that for a long time. So I’m hopeful that that will make a difference. And I do think that America can take note. I think that the leaders of our institutions, the mayors of our cities, the heads of our corporations, the heads of our universities, the heads of our museums … all of whom have been struggling against what seemed to be incredible odds against them may sense we can do something about it, we can make things better, and let’s do it together. And I think that’s what a President can do, and I hope Mr. Clinton will do.

HEFFNER: You know, that’s, that’s an eloquent statement, David. It, it really is, and I raised the question I did not because I challenged your judgment that a President can and can use that “bully pulpit” for that purpose, and I think you’re absolutely right to distinguish between concern about the way others see us, singularly … and the sense of, of ourselves. But I look back to the end of the Lyndon Johnson Administration, not even the end of his administration, but to 1,000 days into it, and when the 1,000 days had gone by and historians began to contrast what Johnson had done in his 1,000 days, in his first 1,000 days, and what Kennedy had done in the only 1,000 days he had, they were ignoring and forgetting the degree to which John F. Kennedy did for us what you want Bill Clinton to do for us, and which I think we agree he will do. But are we sophisticated enough, are we capable enough … in talking about the intellectual community to value sufficiently that input.

FINN: I think we’re, we’re intelligent enough to value it, if he provides it. You know, I, I still think that the, the … we don’t know the answers to whether he will provide it. Kennedy did have a flair and he did, he did affect our, our self-image. You know, I remember when Roosevelt died. You must remember it, too. There aren’t many out there who are listening to us who perhaps remember it.

HEFFNER: Not as many as old as we are, David …

FINN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … I admit.

FINN: But when FDR died to me it seemed like the end of the world. I mean … I didn’t feel the end of the world was there when Hitler had invaded Europe and conquered France and North Africa and the Japanese were all over the Far East and I was in the Air Force. I didn’t think the world was coming to an end. But when FDR died … to me it was traumatic. Ah, Truman came … and today we value Truman highly as a, as a, as perhaps a great President, a great man. But when Truman spoke after FDR died, it was like a mouse speaking after a lion had been there. How are we going to survive with that mouse there? Ah, now I don’t know whether we were capable of responding to that leadership as intellectuals or as human beings. We did respond to it, the whole country responded to it. Well educated, and poorly educated, wealthy and, and poor … although many didn’t like Roosevelt … he was a dominating personality, elected four times to the Presidency. There haven’t been many like that. Eisenhower had some of that, he had integrity and judgment … people had faith in him, confidence in him … we still remember his Farewell Speech. Kennedy certainly had it … he had it because he surrounded himself with brilliant people, Arthur Schlesinger was there and so many other intellectuals … who were great figures of our time. “Camelot” was the word we heard a lot about … he did have great musicians there … I, I recently read a Memoirs of Cassels who said how he felt when he met Kennedy, and how wonderful it was. Who has had it since? Carter didn’t have that. Reagan, who had a certain charm and a certain personal way of, of endearing himself to the public, to many members of the public, suffered because people didn’t feel it was really him. He was mouthing things that other people were telling, telling him to say. And Bush didn’t have it. Bush who had his great triumph in the Gulf War and I felt, I felt … perhaps mistakenly, but I did feel very good at that point, and I think the country felt very good. But he failed to recognize what was on our plate, on our minds, what we were suffering from. Clinton is smiling in the face of adversity, the face of our adversity … and he’s doing something about it. He’s active. You know, I love the phrase “there’s nothing wrong in America that what’s right in America can’t solve,” or whatever that phrase was.

HEFFNER: Reminiscent of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

FINN: But … well, and also “Ask now what you can do for your country, but …” … no … “what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It’s different, though. Because it says there’s something wrong with America. Now that’s a very important statement. Kennedy didn’t say that. Clinton did. And he said we can fix it because we have the wherewithal to fix it. Will we believe him, will we rise to that, that challenge, that inspiration … well, we’ll know in the not too distant future.

HEFFNER: David, I gather you’re saying that he couldn’t have succeeded at saying what FDR did “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” because we know, as a people, we do have a great deal to fear.

FINN: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. We know … it isn’t the armies of the enemy that are surrounding us and threatening us, which if we pull ourselves together we can conquer and defeat … it’s ourselves. What’s wrong with us that we can’t fix our city streets, and we can’t stop this wave of crime, we can’t educate our children … it’s … we have something wrong with us. And, and he touched that nerve.

HEFFNER: Well, if we were to turn to our friends at The Wall Street Journal and to Bob Bartley and to what he has said and written so many times, his answer and their answer seems to be that we have demeaned ourselves, we have given up the ghost. Indeed, when you were recounting the role that you believe Clinton can play now … what we have come to … I was thinking of that cartoon in the New Yorker about 40 years of the psychiatrist with the patient, a young woman, lying down on the couch, and the psychiatrist is saying “but, my dear Ms. Smith, you are inferior.” And I gather you’re not saying ours has been simply a failure of nerve, it’s been a failure and we need the nerve to understand that we can correct our failures.

FINN: I … this is what I’m trying to say … no, it’s interesting, The Wall Street Journal had an editorial some time ago, I guess Bob Bartley wrote it in which he said … “We are beating ourselves on the chest without justification. We’re in great shape. Look what’s happened in these last 10, 12 years,” and he recited a whole bunch of wonderful things that had happened …

HEFFNER: To a very few people …

FINN: … what …

HEFFNER: … to a very few people …

FINN: (Laughter) Well, anyway … he saw it with a very cheerful outlook. And I certainly don’t see it that way. I, I think that we have really … we, we have now terrible problems to face that are much worse than when Mr. Johnson talked about the war on poverty. We, we have … we have problems that we keep on saying maybe can be solved with more money to education and to the cities and so on, and yet less money must be taken out of all of those programs. So what are we going to do? And the, the … and we have this tremendous national debt, and we have to reduce the debt. So the problems are not as dramatic in a sense as they have been at certain some times in our history … certain times in our history, but they’re more … they’re more distressing because we have to ask ourselves, “can we solve them?” See, and I think we can solve them, I’m an optimist. And I’ve seen cities that were going down the drain come back, I’ve seen companies going down the drain come back, and always because of leadership. You know, I must confess that Mr. Carlysle and his concept of heroes in history has always impressed me. There are many who disagree with him, and I’m sure that he, he exaggerated … they’re all heroes, but I think there is a role for heroism among our leaders … people who galvanize the public.

HEFFNER: Well, the question, though, that I began asking you is not, not one based upon cynicism or disbelief, but rather a concern that if the President achieves what it is we both want him to achieve by way of resuscitating our faith in ourself, through deeds …

FINN: Yes.

HEFFNER: … not just through words …

FINN: … absolutely …

HEFFNER: I’m so terribly aware of the degree to which historians, and I obviously don’t mean Arthur Schlesinger, because Arthur was part of Camelot, but I mean those on the outside who respected greatly Lyndon Johnson’s legislative achievements, but never really credited sufficiently John F. Kennedy’s capacity through the Peace Corps, and his words to get us to feel somewhat differently about ourselves. He, he became what, what Max Lerner called a “possibilist.” He said it’s possible for us to do these things which President Clinton is saying now. But I don’t think historians are all that capable of toting up internal images. I think they’re very good at adding up bills passed …

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … dollars spent, battles fought …

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … but that’s why I raised the question of whether we’re sophisticated enough to appreciate what you see the President can do.

FINN: Well, of course, I really don’t know. I, I, I think that there are historians who have recounted what Kennedy’s impact was on that generation. And Arthur Schlesinger’s one of them.

HEFFNER: Arthur was there.

FINN: He was there. And I think there is a tendency not to think of the Kennedy myth, that he was a, you know, a figure that we, we inflated in our minds because he was young and he was a martyr. But, you know, maybe that’s true of Lincoln, too. I, I have a grandson who’s very interested in American history, and who spent a summer at Gettysburg in one of those volunteer programs that are fixing up parks and so on, and he is very turned off by Lincoln. He thinks that Lincoln didn’t really … was not really against slavery, that he did that for political reasons, and to win the war and so on. And he’s been reading and reading and reading … Carl Sandberg and others, and he’s, he’s still not persuaded that Lincoln was what I thought … think and thought he was … have always thought he was. So maybe we, we … as we look back we have different views of, of elite major figures of the past. I certainly think that when Kennedy was here there were a lot of people who were very excited, enthusiastic about him. And it didn’t happen with Johnson. You know, it’s true. I’m always baffled by looking at the record of Johnson’s legislative accomplishments, and how much he did accomplish. And why I never felt great about Johnson. I, I don’t know why. He didn’t associate himself, as far as I could see, with great minds. That was one problem. Archibald McLeash wasn’t there, as he was for Roosevelt. And, and others. He was a very effective politician, and he had very good, very good social sense, and, and he was responsible for major legislation … but, of course, his great failure was the Vietnam War.

HEFFNER: David, do you think that the Vietnam War and then Watergate and then the sense of powerlessness in the face of politicians’ control of our destiny is what has helped make it so difficult today to bolster that … our own sense of ourselves … our own confidence in ourselves.

FINN: I, I, I think that is true. I think the Vietnam War was, was a great trauma. Watergate, the assassinations of Kennedy … of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King … sense of disaster, certainly has had its cumulative effect.

HEFFNER: Do you believe that people turn around in their feelings, their thinking about themselves to that extent? Do you think, again, you’re a “possibilist” as Lerner was, you’re an optimist.

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Do people turn around that way? Their sense of themselves, the picture of themselves, that aspect of imagery that, that you endorse.

FINN: Well, you know, we, we do have to be careful. As you pointed out, deeds are really what counts. But I say deeds must be combined with words, and with visions.

HEFFNER: I don’t say “deeds are the only things that count.” I think the historians who have written about the Kennedy years have dismissed those years too often as not accompanied by realistic …

FINN: Great accomplishments … yeah.

HEFFNER: … factual acts, or deeds.

FINN: But you ask whether we can turn around. I, I think we can turn around, I really do. When I, when I read the media coverage of Clinton in the first … when I read them in the first few weeks of his Administration … one doesn’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next month … I, I sense excitement. You, you remember The Wall Street Journal article where a reporter followed Clinton around for three days, and The Wall Street Journal, on the front page, said “this guy is different.” He is a better salesman than Carter was, he has more substance than Reagan has, and he has a greater vision than Bush had. And there was not a word of criticism, negative criticism. They were … the, the reporters were just aghast at, at the energy of this guy. He’s everywhere. I think that will, will have an impact on us.

HEFFNER: It’s funny that you, you choose that Wall Street Journal piece … front page … but you’re not addressing your friends in the press who since the inauguration, and before …

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … long before had begun to pick on the not-yet-incumbent.

FINN: That, that’s true and I’m sure that will continue to happen. And, it was sort of a joke that he never had his 100 days, and (laughter) before he even started he was under the gun.

HEFFNER: True, isn’t it?

FINN: It is true, and he didn’t handle all the crises that he went through as well as I, I would have hoped perhaps, in certain instances, anyway, and I always remember when the Bay of Pigs occurred, Kennedy said, “it’s my responsibility.” And you know that was the … the polls show that was the highest point of his public … public support. He had the highest ranks when he said, “it’s my fault.” And it wasn’t his fault because he inherited it. I happened to be working with him on a project shortly after that, and he said, “Ill never listen to the Generals again. The Generals told me it was a good thing to do and I did it. But it was wrong.” And I remember when the nuclear disarmament pact was signed, and Harriman came back from Russia, from Soviet Union, with an agreement … Kennedy said, “I want this to be the first of a whole series of arms reductions programs. That’s what I want to accomplish.” The guy had a vision, and those … I mean those of us who knew him sensed that, it was true. There may have been many things wrong with him. But he had a vision and I hope Clinton will have that vision, and I haven’t quite seen it yet. And if he talks about, about a community service program for young people, but he doesn’t call it the Peace Corps. Kennedy said, “let’s go to the moon.” What, what is he … Clinton going to tell us he wants to accomplish … reduce the debt?

HEFFNER: Well, I’ll tell you what …

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … come back in a year, and we’ll tote up what he’s done, and didn’t do by way of recreating of a more positive image on the part of Americans relating to themselves, which is a perfect place to say, that’s all the time we have today, David Finn.

FINN: (Laughter) Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Thank you for joining me.

FINN: Pleasure to be here. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.